As if 2020 wasn’t good enough for Eckrich, who was a first-team all-JCAA pitcher, going 11-3 and fanning 117 batters in 83 innings. Eckrich succeeded Emma Nichols, who now pitches at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Eckrich was on the Hawk varsity in 2018 when they finished fourth in Class 3. Last year, she was second on the team in hitting at .434.

“We started practice late the other day and she was getting a workout in with (sophomore) Lauren Nichols (Emma’s younger sister) before they had to be back for practice. She has a big schedule during the summer (in select softball),” Lucas said.

“We have a good mix of girls. We have a good group of seniors and a group of younger girls who, when they get used to varsity play, should (give us) a decent team. How quickly they adjust will be a key for us.”

They adjusted quickly to start 2021, going 3-1 at the talent-rich Sullivan Tournament. The Hawks downed Eldon, Bolivar and Northwest and lost to Eureka. The win over the Lions was for fifth place.

The Hawks won consecutive Class 3 district titles between 2017 and 2019 but lost to Farmington 5-2 in the Class 4 District 1 final a year ago. They remain in District 1 with three conference rivals (De Soto, Festus and Windsor) and other familiar opponents (Cape Central, Farmington, North County and Sikeston).

Senior Hailey Genge returns at first base and is another holdover from the 2018 state team. She’s  already sharply honed for her final season at Hillsboro after a summer of select softball played as far away as Colorado. She hit .397 as a Hawk last year with three home runs, 10 doubles and 17 runs batted in. Her father, Mike Genge, is a former head football coach at Hillsboro and Grandview and is the current head coach at Oakville.

“She had a great year last year and now we expect more out of her,” Lucas said.

Sophomore Peyton Uphoff and freshman Olivia Peters are splitting time at catcher. Lucas said both have a lot of talent and upside.

“It’s just a matter of getting them comfortable. Obviously, catching Elly will be a big difference in what they’ve seen,” he said.

At second base are sophomore Bailey Scallet and senior Ashlynn Dean. When one is at that position, the other will play in the outfield. Lauren Nichols plays shortstop. Unlike her older sister, who both throws and bats lefthanded, Lauren does both righthanded.

“There’s a lot of difference between them,” Lucas said. “Lauren’s starting to mature and is a great athlete. She plays high-caliber softball during the summer.”

Senior Sara Stokes is at third base to start the season. The outfield has Dean in left and senior Kora King in center, where she’s played for three years. Scallet and sophomores Chloe Hicks and Madelyn Shelby compete for the right field spot.

“I took a lot of talent from the JV,” Lucas said. “Our JV still has plenty of talent. I like the direction we’re going the next few years.”

Tigers open new stadium

After years of playing home games off campus at Sunset Park, the Festus softball team opened a new era against Northwest on Sept. 1 in a brand-new stadium that was completed behind the high school this summer.

An all-artificial turf field, lights around the perimeter, a concession area and grandstands are a few of the features that have already made a difference in how the team prepares, said Tiger head coach Jeff Montgomery, the only skipper in the team’s 24-year history.

“I can’t get over how much better (the new field) is making us in two weeks,” Montgomery said. “It’s improving our practices. You can get on it every day. These first two weeks (for) our kids were incredible. Being here in campus, it changes everything for us. We’ve got good lights. It’s a game-changer for our program.

“We had 38 girls come out this year, the most ever. I expect more the next couple of years. This program deserves it. It’s been a hard-nosed, tough little program for 20-plus years. It’s really a great thing for our school.”

New digs don’t guarantee victories, however, as the Tigers found out in an 11-1 loss to the Lions. Festus lost eight of its last nine games in 2020 and finished 6-20 after falling 5-4 to Cape Girardeau Central in the Class 4 District 1 playoffs. The Tigers’ last district championship was in 2017. They’ll have to start the season without veteran pitcher Hunter Ellsworth, a junior, who is injured. Montgomery said Ellsworth could be available later this season.

In her place, senior Makenzie McJunkins, junior Bailey Propst and sophomore Maddie Kissee will step into the circle. They combined for 25 innings and a record of 0-5 a year ago.

“We are not a high-velocity pitching staff,” Montgomery said. “We are going to have to rely on hitting spots, setting up hitters and making plays on defense.”

Offensively, Festus lost its top three hitters to graduation in Tristan Foulk (.353), Morgan Green (.342) and Paige Perry (.303, team-leading 24 RBIs). Montgomery said the Tigers will have to manufacture runs because they lack power, although freshmen Rylie Moore and Olivia Gillam are promising in that department.

“Ellsworth has power. We have some young athleticism that is exciting,” Montgomery said.

Sophomore Liv Isbell hit .315 with 14 RBIs last season and junior Anna Arman hit .242 with three doubles, a triple and a home run. Montgomery said he expects McJunkins (who also plays second base), Ellsworth, Arman and Propst to be the leaders this year. Isbell also is recovering from an injury.

Sophomores Madelyn Geiler, Ciara McDonald, Lilly Besore, Belle Rowden and Lexi Gauch and junior Regan Hanewinkel will fill roles and contribute this year, Montgomery said.

“We still have some work to do,” he added. “We had a scrimmage last (week) and we have a lot of things to work on and clean up. We have a lot of moving parts on defense and we have three or four pitchers. Three do some pretty good things. We’ve got some challenges for sure. We’re definitely going to be a young team.”

The Missouri State High School Activities Association released its class and district assignments last week and nothing changes for the Tigers, who are in Class 4 District 1 again, along with Cape Girardeau Central, De Soto, Farmington, Hillsboro, North County, Sikeston and Windsor.

Blue Jays look for next star

Jefferson has had its share of all-state players in the last five years in pitcher Sarah Handrahan, infielder Abi Chipps and catcher Catryn Cattoor. Now it’s time for the next Blue Jay standout to rise to that level of play.

Will it be senior Cameron Menke or junior Morgan Figliolo, both varsity veterans who already have posted superb numbers as dual-threat pitchers and hitters? Or will a young, untested player, like Cattoor’s younger sister, Peyton, emerge to lead Jefferson back to the final four, as in 2016?

One thing is for sure, head coach Robert Kuehnle has plenty of options as the lingering COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t hurt the program’s overall numbers.

“When you get a string of players like that, you’re pretty special,” said Kuehnle, who doubles as Jefferson’s head baseball coach in the spring. “Last year Catryn and Cami (Menke) led the offense. This year there will be a lot more input from a lot of key players.

“This is a weird situation. I’ve been doing this for 15 or 16 years. Every year you think you know where kids are going to start and you look at the people who could challenge them. This year it will be cloudy, where one girl plays three innings and one plays four in the same game.”

Menke hit .475 last season and has 52 RBIs and 12 doubles over the past two seasons. In the circle, Menke, a lefthander, pitched 41 2/3 innings in 2020 and was 2-4. Figliolo returns to pitch and play shortstop. She batted .311 with six doubles and two triples and was 1-1 in her 25 innings in the circle.

The other returnees are sophomore catcher Marissa Fasnut and junior center fielder Allison Campbell.

Some of the Blue Jays took hitting instruction this year from Jefferson College coach Jim Spencer.

“We came back to camp and practice as more rounded hitters,” Kuehnle said. “We’re taking different approaches at the plate and not looking at so many first-pitch fastballs. I’m really excited to see what we can do offensively this year.”

Menke and Figliolo won’t be the only Blue Jays in the circle as Kuehnle said some freshmen could get their first varsity action if the right opportunity arises.

“What day and when?” Kuehnle said. “We don’t have a Sarah Handrahan or Megan Payne to hand the ball to every day and say, ‘Go get outs.’ We’re pitching by committee. It’s a nice change of pace.”

The Blue Jays entered the Class 2 District 4 tournament last year as the No. 3 seed but beat Louisiana and Jefferson County Activities Association rival St. Pius X en route to the district championship game, which they lost to Elsberry. After winning five of its first six games in 2020, Jefferson finished 8-14.

“It’s going to be a tough district and I don’t think there’s a clear-cut No. 1 seed right out of the gate,” Kuehnle said. “Elsberry didn’t lose too many people. They won our district last year. We’ve got to be ready to build off our wins and losses and keep our eyes on the prize.”

Blackcats hope to rebound from dismal 2020

The slide to 1-15 a year ago took about six weeks for Herculaneum, which like many teams scrambled to reschedule games because of COVID-19.

The Blackcats’ only win came early against Saxony Lutheran. Herky dropped its next 14 games and closed out 2020 with a loss to Lutheran South in the Class 3 District 1 playoffs. Herculaneum remains in Class 3 District 1, which also includes Bayless, Doniphan, Fredericktown, Hancock, Notre Dame St. Louis and two JCAA schools, Perryville and St. Pius X.

The good news for Herky is it has several veteran returning players, including junior Courtnee Lowrey, who last season batted leadoff and was one of the Blackcats’ two main pitchers along with 2021 graduate Kyle Romaine.

Herculaneum head coach Christal Brakhage enters her third season and she’s being assisted this year by Ryan Dickerman, the Blackcats’ head baseball coach.

“Hopefully we’ve got a lot of energy and spunk and have more intensity so we can have a better season than last year,” Brakhage said. “Courtnee is our main pitcher and shortstop and hits for power. She’s here for the next two years, so that’s good for us.

“She consistently shows discipline at the plate. She’s a power hitter who isn’t overly anxious. She will take a walk if she doesn’t get any pitches she likes.”

Brakhage is excited about her outfield, consisting of seniors Holley Johnson and Madison Lawson and sophomore Abbey Heidland.

“All three can cover a great deal of ground in the outfield,” Brakhage said.

Besides Lowrey at shortstop, senior Lesley Greer, junior Belle Milojevic and sophomore Riley Adams are all returning infielders. Senior Abby Kostecki is back at catcher and seniors Grace Young and Samarah Jackson add depth to the outfield. Sophomore Kimber Ashe is a utility player who can play third or catch.

“Abby and Madison can be creative at the plate,” Brakhage said. “They can do it all: power, slap, bunt. They both have a great deal of speed.

“(Kostecki) is great at every position. She is going to be amazing at directing our defense.”

Joining Lowrey in the circle is freshman Mackenzie Quick. Brakhage said the Blackcats have enough games on the schedule to split the innings between the two pitchers.

“I believe Mackenzie will do great at the varsity level,” Brakhage said. “She has a lot of pitching experience playing select ball.”

Milojevic, Greer and Johnson are more than just role players on the field. “They also contribute to the team by keeping everyone in the game and full of fire,” Brakhage said.

Lancers face life after Agers

When a four-time all-conference player graduates – as did St. Pius X standout A.J. Agers, one of the most versatile and talented athletes in school history, this spring – common sense says you don’t replace him or her with one player, but with many.

Agers, who pitched all 83 innings for the Lancers last year, is on an athletic scholarship at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla.

The Lancers won district championships in 2017 and 2019 with Agers, who was the JCAA pitcher of the year in 2020, leading the way in the circle and at the plate. After beating Jefferson in a conference game during the regular season, St. Pius fell to the Blue Jays 4-3 in the Class 2 District 4 semifinals to finish 10-4 in a season abbreviated by COVID-19.

The changing of the guard isn’t new to Kevin Halley, who begins his 14th season as the Lancers head coach.

“I really like the personality of this group,” Halley said. “We didn’t lose a whole lot of numbers – we lost four starters – and nine out of our 20 are new to the program. We’re deeper than we’ve been in a long time.”

Sophomore Jesse Robinson has emerged after two weeks of practice as the new No. 1 pitcher in her first year at St. Pius. Freshman Maliyah Underwood and junior K.K. Vaugh also will see time in the circle.

“(Robinson) does a good job of mixing speeds and hitting spots,” Halley said. “She’s not going to overpower you, but she throws sneaky hard. Defensively, we’ve got enough athletes behind her.

“Maliyah and K.K. will have to focus on throwing strikes to be successful, but I’m certain they will work really hard to serve their role.”

Junior Sophie Meyer returns at shortstop. She was second on the team last fall, behind only Agers, in batting average (.364) and RBIs (17).

“She is exceptionally athletic and has really good hands. She’s an absolute gamer,” Halley said. “She’s very gritty and is a great leader and teammate.”

Junior McKenna Nordin is back to patrol center field and is penciled in as the leadoff batter. Her on-base percentage last season was .400.

“She does a lot of the things that leadoff hitters do,” Halley said.

A.J. Stetina, a four-year starter, played second base as a freshman, third base as a sophomore and was back at second last year. This year Stetina, the team captain, moves over to first base.

“She doesn’t have a whole lot of pop but she gets on base,” Halley said. “She’s very heady and smart and will do what we need to do to be successful.”

Seniors Cathyrn Carron and Emily Schaumburg have earned playing time. Freshman Katelyn Torrence and junior Mia Sherman are battling for the starting job behind the plate and freshmen Rylee Bohnert and Anna Biermann are engaged in a similar duel at second. Junior Riley Cappozzo, who missed last season, will play in the outfield.

“I’m not going to try and replace (Agers) with one person,” Halley said. “We’re all going to have to step up in the aggregate and all do a little bit more to replace that (production). It’s not fair to ask anybody to replace her one-on-one.”

Dragons notch first win

After losing its first three games in the Sullivan tournament, De Soto won its final outing there, edging Osage 8-7.

Senior Hannah Eberhardt scored two runs, senior Emily Sampson had two hits and two RBIs and junior Cameron Hayes-Gowen tripled and scored twice to pace the Dragons, who had lost to Logan-Rogersville, Pacific and Northwest by a combined margin of 33-3.

Char Linhorst takes over a team that finished 11-38 the past two seasons but is not many years removed from two state trophies, including the Class 3 championship in 2014. Linhorst, a native of Hannibal, was part of Jefferson College’s inaugural softball team. She was an assistant for the Vikings under Tony Cook for five years.

“We’re going to be a young team,” Linhorst said. “We have a lot of areas of strengths and we’re working toward improving backing up our pitchers defensively. The players are doing a great job with listening to their coaches and making adjustments at the plate to (swing) quicker and more powerfully.”

Eberhardt (left field), Sampson (center field), Hayes-Gowen (third base) and sophomore Ella DeClue (shortstop) are De Soto’s top returning players. Eberhardt hit .271 with two doubles, two home runs and 17 RBIs last year. Sampson was named to the all-tournament team in Sullivan.

“(Sampson) is great defensively and is a powerful hitter on the left side,” Linhorst said. “Ella, while young, has another great bat that has already proven to be a huge asset. She stays calm in the batters box and can really pick up and read pitches. (Hayes-Gowen) has great bat speed. She’s going to do great things this year.”

The Dragons’ young pitching staff features three freshmen – Audrey Zebas, Elizabeth Woelich and Kaly Zoph – and senior Isabella Escobar. Zebas starts the season as the No. 1 arm and Linhorst said she takes charge in the circle. Woelich has great velocity on her pitches and in time, the coach said, will be a strong hurler. Zoph stays within the strike zone and is expected to be a “go-to” starter in the future. Escobar has been good in relief and gotten the Dragons out of jams in the past.

Owls top state champs to start year

One of 16 teams at the Sullivan Tournament in the first action of the season on Aug. 27-28, Windsor finished sixth, going 3-2.

Their biggest win was a 9-6 decision over Webster Groves, last year’s Class 4 state champion. The Owls also beat Owensville 2-1 and Jackson 4-3. They lost 15-2 to Capital City and were shut out 4-0 by Hillsboro. In the win over Owensville, sophomore shortstop Madison Williams reached on a bunt, stole two bases and scored.

Windsor will play the Hawks later this season in a JCAA matchup and could meet them a third time in the Class 4 District 1 tournament.

The heat was unrelenting throughout the two-day Sullivan event, an early test of conditioning.

“We couldn’t muster any hits against Hillsboro. It was such a hot weekend, I think both teams were done,” Windsor head coach Wayne Montgomery said. “Every team we played will have a winning record by the end of the year.”

That’s what the Owls ended up with last season, going 13-11 and just missing a shot at playing Webster Groves in the Class 4 District 2 championship. Windsor lost 2-0 to Rosati-Kain in the semifinals. Although his team is back among more familiar opponents in District 1 this year, Montgomery noted there are benefits to playing outside competition.

“I like seeing different teams and the district we were in last year would have been more favorable (for that),” he said. “I sensed it because (MSHSAA) needed a Jefferson County school if the other teams couldn’t play (because of COVID). It’s going to be a tough district. Can we get out of there? Yes, we can. Hillsboro and Farmington are two of the best teams in the area. But that’s the way it always is for us.”

The Owls always seem to possess several players who can hit for power and drive in runs. That’s what they have in senior first baseman and cleanup batter Cierra Parker, who hit .389 and had 28 RBIs last year. Senior Riley Siegel was second team all-state last year after hitting nine home runs and driving in 31 runs. She plays next to Parker at second. Montgomery said this year’s team could top 20 home runs.

“(Siegel) has done a lot in the offseason to be solid again,” he said. “She’s working harder than ever. The power numbers came when she hit a hot streak. She’s a good contact hitter overall and has come a long way as a player the last two years.”

Lacie Pruett, a senior third baseman, has started some games every year since she was a freshman. She’s capable of hitting six or seven home runs.

Sophomore Riley Fendler has earned her shot as Windsor’s No. 1 pitcher and was 3-1 at Sullivan.

“She has the potential to shut teams down,” Montgomery said.

Logan Veselske started last year as a freshman and is back in the outfield and at third base. Her older sister, Jessica, is the catcher at Jefferson College. Sophomore Madison Williams plays shortstop and was one of the Owls’ best offensive players at Sullivan.

“(Veselske) and Williams will play much more significant roles this year. They’re two of the best defensive players we have,” Montgomery said. “(Williams) made things happen with her legs with multiple stolen bases in some games. Defensively she solidified herself as the shortstop.”

Senior Grace Sulin moves to catcher after playing center field last year. “We’ve had some solid catchers over the years,” Montgomery said. “She’s caught with her summer team. She really helped in Riley’s success over the weekend (and) has really come a long way the last few weeks.”

Junior Bailey Davis transferred from Seckman and takes over Sulin’s old spot in center field. Montgomery said Davis didn’t play softball last year for the Jaguars.

“She’s a nice addition and is a great defensive outfielder. She threw a girl out at the plate (at Sullivan) and won’t get challenged by runners.”