Asoftball team with eight seniors rolls its way to a supersectional
trip through lights-out pitching, impeccable defense, and hitting that rewrote the record books.
That’s a great season, but what do you do for an encore? What do you do when those seniors are gone, when you have to find replacements for players like Erin Stroup, Emily Berogan and Nadia Trujillo? What do you do when a lot of the players coming back were hitting at the bottom of the order or pinch running or playing on the sophomore team a year ago, and they are now the core of your varsity team? What do you do when your biggest strength, your pitching depth, leads to the question of how to find enough innings to spread around to three college-bound pitchers?
If you are Sterling softball coach Becki Edmondson, you tinker and experiment with the lineup and pitching rotation, see what works, see what doesn’t, take the early-season lumps, and come out the other side with a completely retooled lineup and another regional crown.
The work began almost as soon as last season ended, as players refocused themselves to working toward their 2017 goals without worrying about the talented class they had just lost.
“We really didn’t bring up a lot about the seniors,” Lexy Staples said. “We focus on the future, not the past. If we wanted to try out different spots, we could try out different spots.”
In the offseason, the coaching staff looked to see who was not involved in a fall or winter sport. Assistant coach Eric Staples worked with those players during the offseason on conditioning and weight training, while Edmondson worked with pitchers and catchers.
The coaching staff held a series of open gyms in January to see who was putting in the time.
“We told the girls at the banquet at the end of last year, with the loss of so many seniors, the best way for us to see you right away was to come to open gyms and make yourself visible right away,” Edmondson said. “Obviously, there were some girls that play basketball and there are some that play travel volleyball. It helps to have some open gyms, but we really don’t get a good look at them until the season starts.”
For most of the players, working with the coaching staff was nothing new. The pitchers have been working with Edmondson for years, creating a link for them to the varsity program long before they set foot in the high school.
Lexy Staples said that Edmondson will get to know each pitcher’s individual style through those lessons. That one-on-one work with Edmondson paid off when Staples got to high school and became the ace of the pitching staff as a freshman.
“She helped calm me down that entire season,” Staples said. “She made me the pitcher I am today.”
“She made sure I got my stuff done,” Cheyenne Harrington remembered of those pitching lessons when she was younger. “She made it fun, and that made me look forward to coming to pitching lessons.”
In her 4 years with the Golden Warriors, Harrington played a lot of different roles. She was a backup pitcher behind Staples as a freshman. When Maddie Corwell emerged the following year, Harrington went to the sophomore team, splitting time in the circle with Corwell. As a junior, Harrington found herself playing third base. She was in the lineup as a DH a time or two, though often times when she played third, another player, often Jayme Eilers, hit for her.
Moving from one spot to another depending on what the team needed turned out to be good practice for the 2017 season.
After Stroup graduated, the Golden Warriors needed a great hitter and a shortstop to replace the 2016 SVM player of the year, and Harrington was called upon to make another move.
“Playing third base last year, I played the field, I didn’t hit,” Harrington said. “Coming into this year, the coaches talked to me and said that I was going to have to play shortstop. I had played shortstop a little bit my sophomore year down at the sophomore level because me and Maddie switched off pitching, but I’d never played shortstop at the varsity level. I was nervous, but I knew I was capable of doing it.”
Harrington said she didn’t think too much about the switch. Fielding a grounder was pretty much the same, she was just standing a few feet further to her left.
“During practices, we did offense, we did defense,” Harrington said. “We had a talk early in the season making sure all of us were on the same page. We just prepared mentally.”
When the season started, the tinkering ramped up. Edmondson tried different combinations of pitchers, starting one, bringing another on in relief. Players moved from one position to another.
“We had our first thought on where we were going to start out, and then we knew if that didn’t work out, we had our Plan B and we were going to rotate,” Edmondson said. “We had some options. We had a little bit of depth. It was a lot of new faces, but we had some depth.”
Gretchen Gould moved from first to third. Grace Gould went from right field to second base; in all, three different players played second. Hannah Kessler, used last year primarily as a courtesy runner, found herself by the end of the 2017 season ensconced in the leadoff spot in the order and holding down center field.
“She had a very big role in putting each player in a spot that made this team better, and I think she did a very good job of making sure that happened,” Harrington said. “She’s a very good coach, and she dedicates a lot of time to making the program better every year.”
Early in the season, the Golden Warriors appeared to struggle. Sherrard beat them 5-4 to open the season. In early April came a bit of a losing streak, as Sterling was swept in a doubleheader by Rockridge and fell in 10 innings to Geneseo.
“We were freaking out a couple times, and [Edmondson] was honest, it was growing pains,” Staples said. “We figured out what girls worked in different spots, and we were dominant from there on.”
The losing at the beginning of the year gave way to winning later on. After the Geneseo loss, the Golden Warriors rattled off three straight wins, scoring a total of 30 runs in those games. Starting in mid-April, Sterling put together first a seven-game, then a five-game winning streak.
“To begin with, everybody was a little tighter, they were trying to find their way,” Edmondson said. “They were a little more tense because everybody felt they had this to prove, that we were still a good team even though we lost so many girls. As we evolved through the season, we had some key hits from some underclassmen.”
Edmondson said the turnaround came thanks to a headstrong and coachable group, and it was a group that got used to and bought into the idea that they may be asked to play just about anywhere. She was able to even call upon underclassmen to join the varsity squad and contribute, but she makes a point of not doing that unless she has to. Playing time at the lower levels can be valuable for a player’s development.
“We had to do that last year in some situations where we had a girl that would come up and get some time at the varsity level, and then she would go back down to get more time,” Edmondson said. “We aren’t going to bring anybody up unless they are going to get a lot of time. I don’t want to bring somebody off the sophomore team if they are just going to be a pinch runner. It’s not fair to them.”
Sterling had three pitchers on staff, and all three will be pitching in college. Eilers committed to New Mexico in the fall, and will head to Albuquerque after two more seasons in Sterling. Staples will head off to Culver-Stockton rhis summer, and Corwell will pitch at Lindenwood after her senior season next spring.
“We have three very competitive pitchers who all play competitive summer programs, who all put the work in in the offseason,” Edmondson said. “Just trying to keep all three of them happy and to make sure that by postseason, we have that pecking order the way it should be.”
Edmondson said it was tough at first to figure out how to spread those innings around, but it was a good problem to have. Corwell and Staples eventually found other spots in the field on days they didn’t pitch, and by mid-season, Eilers had emerged as the pitcher who would get the call for the postseason.
“At the beginning of the year, we started a three-pitcher rotation,” Staples said. “I would start, then Jayme would start, then Maddie would start. Jayme was just on fire. Becki really helped us. She asked if we were doing well in our spots and if we needed more pitching time.”
The three also have different skill sets. Staples can hit her locations and work from ahead in the count, relying more on the defense behind her than trying to strike everyone out. Corwell has a different windup and motion, and brings straight heat. Eilers has speed, but also great movement and can rack up strikeouts in bunches, like she did in the regional semifinal, striking out all 15 Dixon batters she faced in a five-inning perfect game.
That allowed Edmondson to make pitching changes to keep other teams off-balance.
In the middle of the regular season, the Golden Warriors faced Marengo, knowing they would likely meet again in the sectional. Edmondson debated how to handle the pitching for that game. She could throw Eilers, hopefully all would go well, and Marengo would go into sectional knowing she had shut them down before, giving Sterling the psychological edge. Or Edmondson could use the other two pitchers, denying Marengo a chance to get an at-bat against Eilers and making Eilers more of a mystery to their batters in the sectional game.
Staples started. Corwell came on in relief.
Early in the season, Edmondson tinkered with the rotation, having a one-two punch of Staples and Corwell in one game, Eilers and Staples the next.
“We stuck with that for the first several games so they were all getting that work before the games,” Edmondson said. “That helped them keep pretty sharp.”
By the end of the season, Eilers was the ace.
Through all the tinkering, constantly retooling, then retooling again, the Golden Warriors settled on a lineup that worked.
Eight seniors from the Class of ’16 may have left after leading the team to a sectional title – but under Edmondson’s guidance, the lineup that remained came together and brought home another regional title this year.