The Hillsboro Hawks lost to the Cape Notre Dame Bulldogs 6-2 in Wednesday’s sectional softball contest. The Hawks finished the year with a 20-10 record, won their third straight district title, and by all intents and purposes, had a great season. But there was still a sense of emptiness as the team departed, never to be together as one again. And it wasn’t just because the season was over.
It was because the Hawks didn’t have their best game. And there’s nothing wrong with that…it happens…it’s a part of sports. But there are so many “what ifs” when a team, that had such a powerful offense all season long, managed just four hits on Wednesday.
“It was very frustrating not being able to get our normal offense working,” first baseman Ellie Bartlett commented. “We, myself included, didn’t make the adjustments needed to get on top of her (Cape Notre Dame’s pitcher’s) movement. If we could’ve gotten our offense working, it would have been a completely different game.”
Bartlett may have been thinking about the bottom of the third inning. After the first two innings were scoreless, the Bulldogs pushed across three runs in the top of the third. A one-out walk, then a two out single to left put two runners on. A double scored two runs, and then the third scored on a passed ball. But the Hawks came back and created some noise of their own in the bottom half of the inning.
Nicole Evans was hit by a pitch, but forced at second on a fielder’s choice by Alex Wick. But Wick moved to second when Ryleigh Hindle singled to left, and then Bailey Shuman hit a line drive single to center that got out to the outfield so quickly, Wick had to hold up at third. The bases were loaded with the #2 and #3 batters coming to bat. Julz Johnson saw five pitches, but popped up to the pitcher for the second out of the inning. Then Bartlett was up, saw four pitches, and struck out swinging.
Hawks head coach Kevin Lucas knew a great opportunity had passed. “I think it would have been huge for us to have gotten a run or two then because it could have helped bring the momentum back our way,” he said. “Plus, it would have given us some confidence that we could score.”
Because after that, the Hawks fought tooth-and-nail, but just couldn’t get it going enough to put too much pressure on Notre Dame. The Bulldogs stranded two in the fourth, but came back in the fifth to score two more on a sacrifice fly and a double. Along with those final two outs in the third, the Notre Dame pitcher retired eight straight batters. “It was frustrating that we couldn’t do more against them,” Lucas lamented. “I also realize that is a pitcher that took them to the state championship game just a couple of years ago, and she also shut down a very good lineup of ours that year. I would say it was a little bit of both because we didn’t make the adjustments we needed to make against her. But we did make some good adjustments in the one inning when we scored two runs, but that was really it.”
After Notre Dame scored a single run in the top of the inning, Hillsboro finally broke through in the sixth. Shuman singled to center, but was forced at second on a Johnson grounder. Bartlett coaxed a walk, and then Amber Cage‘s groundout advanced runners to second and third. Elly Eckrich, who had labored in the circle doing everything she could to keep the team close, unleashed a rocket to center, that, if higher, may have left the park (see picture above). Instead, it slammed off the wall, Johnson and Bartlett crossed the plate, and Eckrich had a long single. Sara Stokes came in to run for Eckrich, but Alanah Dunphy‘s fly ball to center ended the inning with the Hawks still trailing by four.
The Bulldogs stranded a runner in the seventh, but the Hawks had no answer in their half of the inning. An Evans strikeout, a groundout by Hailey Genge, left Hindle, who made an amazing catch in left field in the fifth inning, as the last chance for Hillsboro. When her fly ball fell softly into the center fielder’s glove, the Hawks had played their last inning of 2019.
Two hits by Shuman, and a hit each from Eckrich and Hindle were all the Hawks could muster. Meanwhile, Eckrich threw 128 pitches and suffered eight walks. It wasn’t her normal game, but she gutted it out, allowing just five hits and striking out five. Coach Lucas said the young sophomore can only get better after this post-season journey. “This will give her some very good experience for down the road the next couple years,” he said. “The atmosphere of this game was awesome, and the fans on both sides were very loud. It was something we hadn’t seen yet this year. This should really prepare her for the next couple years as we hope to be in this same situation again next year.” Eckrich agreed. “I think it will prepare me for big games to come in the future,” she noted. “It will help me become mentally tough for situations like this.”
So as the team gathered in left field after the game, the scenario seen so many times played itself out. There were hugs, tears, and even a few laughs. But it’s something every coach dreads when it’s time to say goodbye to seniors who have been a part of the program for so long. “No, it’s never easy, and I always get choked up when it comes time to do it,” Lucas admitted. “I care so much about all of our kids that I hurt with them when their time here is over. This group has been a huge part of the success of this program. Most of them have been a part of three straight district championships, and they all helped us make history last year by making it to the State Final Four. They are all amazing young ladies that will go on and do great things with their lives. We had a lot of fun the last couple years, and there weren’t many dull moments around them. I want to thank them for allowing me to be a small part of their high school athletic career here at Hillsboro.”
And the seniors had some thoughts they wanted to share as well. “To be a part of this program was more than I ever expected, and I’m glad it was like that,” Amber Cage said. “I’m so glad that I was a part of this program. Through every win and loss of all my seasons, it was the best high school career I could’ve asked for. I take with me all the wins, losses, bus rides, gas station stops, all the friends I made, and the learning experience I got from the game. I’ll never forget the memories I made from this program and team. I hope I leave a goal for the younger girls, like going to state, knowing that they can make it that far. I plan on watching these younger girls go pretty far next season. I also hope I give back to the program a good leadership role that they learn from, and fill in my spot.”
Katelyn Canada didn’t get a chance to suit up and play this year, but still had this to say. “I couldn’t ask for a better experience! This year I wish I could have played…I was benched all season due to back problems. It didn’t stop me from coming to every game and cheering on my team. Over the last four years, I struggled with injuries. But my teammates were always there for me! These girls are my second family and always will be. I hope they cherish every game, because it will be over before they know it.”
Julz Johnson was the quarterback of the team as she positioned herself behind the plate game after game. It was hard for her to put into words what the last four years meant to her. “I don’t even know where to start,” she confessed. “This program has had a big impact on my softball career, and life itself. I have learned so much from the coaches throughout the four years. I’ve learned to never give up on my goals, and to not give up even when we have met our goals. I’ve learned that a team is not just individual people or girls showing up to games to play for themselves. A team is a family, and I’ve been more than lucky to call this team my family. I have made so many great memories with this team that I will cherish forever. I hope us seniors set the standards high for next year’s team. I hope I was a good enough role model throughout the years so the upcoming seniors will know how to be leaders through the actions I portrayed this year.”
Finally, Bailey Shuman said she’s grown quite a bit through playing for the Hawks. “Playing for the high school team has always been my most fun and favorite season. Every coach in our program is not only amazing at making us better athletes, they are also so caring, and any of us can go to them for anything. That, to me, is so special. Everyday, I became a better athlete, and for that I’m forever grateful. This team has accomplished so much, and I’m so proud I was a part of it. I will never forget all of the memories and relationships made through all four years. I hope, out of anything else, I made an impact on each season, teammate, and coach because they all made an impact on me.”
And Coach Lucas simply made sure his team knew how he felt before they broke for the last time. “I really just told them how proud I was of them. Not many people thought we would have the year we did, but they worked their butts off for us every day. I wanted to make sure I let them know how much I appreciate everything they have done, because I probably don’t tell them enough. They all knew we could have done better, but it just wasn’t our day.”
It might not have been their day on Wednesday, but they made their fans, friends, and parents very proud on a daily basis.