NORMAL — Heartland Community College’s softball team was making the long drive to Clinton, Miss., on Monday to play this week in the NJCAA Division II national tournament. It was no big deal. The Hawks have been part of a lot of long drives this season.
Heartland has pounded out a school-record 95 home runs on its way to a 36-20 record. The Hawks punched their ticket to the national tournament by hitting four home runs in an eight-run fifth inning Saturday, earning the District P Championship with a 10-4 win over Mineral Area College.
“The No. 1 thing we do is hit the ball,” head coach Steve Leverton said. “We’ve hit about 30 more home runs than the school record coming into this year, and we thought we hit a lot of home runs in the past. That’s kind of been our M.O.”
Sophomore third baseman Riley Phipps leads the Hawks with 21 homers. She also has a team-high 54 runs batted in to go with a .365 batting average.
Leadoff hitter Cassie Kuizin, the Mid-West Athletic Conference and Region 24 Player of the Year, has been the catalyst for an offense averaging 7.4 runs per game with a .403 average, 14 home runs and 42 RBIs. The sophomore shortstop also has scored 57 runs and stolen a team-high 10 bases.
Freshman outfielder Marcy Serrano, a .352 hitter, is next in home runs with 13. Another key player has been sophomore first baseman Casey Jefferson, a former Normal West High School star with a .351 average, nine homers and 50 RBIs, second on the team to Phipps.
Heartland has a .331 batting average, a .400 on-base percentage and a .575 slugging percentage. The 14th-seeded Hawks open the 16-team national tournament at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday against No. 3 seed Jones County (Miss.) Junior College.
“We’re a sophomore-laden team,” Leverton said. “We start 10 players with a DP (designated player) and eight are sophomores. They’re a big part of what we do.
“These kids came in with a mission. They’re all high GPA kids and have the big picture in mind that there’s life after softball. They do everything together. It’s just crazy how they all get along so well.”
The top pitcher has been sophomore Jessica Weaver, who is 20-5 with a 3.30 earned run average. She has 66 strikeouts and 39 walks in 152 2/3 innings.
“She doesn’t overpower you, but she does what we need to do to win the game,” Leverton said.