EUREKA – A majority of small school softball programs may not be able to absorb the graduation of five four-year starters, but Eureka is one of them that can.
And while the chances of duplicating the 23-0 start of the 2017 club posted are highly unlikely, there should not be a gigantic drop off either.
“I think we have some talent,” commented head coach John Stromberger, who starts his 14th season at the helm with a 223-183-1 record. “Having our pitching back is huge in terms of stability. Losing those five girls we lost is enormous from an offensive and defensive standpoint. I’m not placing any undue pressure on them. Right now, we’re trying to work hard and develop some chemistry.”
The Hornets lost regulars in first base Bailey Gourley (.413 average, four home runs, 32 runs batted in), third base Danielle Ladendorf (.409, 34 RBIs), shortstop Ashlyn Millett (.353, 25 RBIs), catcher Samantha McKee (1.000 fielding percentage) and right fielder Danielle Brittain from a team that won a program-best 29 out of 31 games. They dropped a 1-0 decision to two A runner-up St. Joseph-Ogden (35-5) in the Maroa-Forsyth Sectional final.
They do return a quartet of seniors in Tessa Leman (team-best .468 average), who is expected to move from center field to behind the plate, second base Maddie McCunn (.411, 26 RBIs) and the tandem of Quincy Boschulte (.418) and Parker Williams, who will again form the pitching staff. Boschulte and McCunn were both repeat second team all-state picks by the Illinois Coaches Association, while the pair and Leman were named to the HOIC first squad.
Boschulte, Leman and McCunn will be expected to supply the bulk of the offense that scored 228 runs a season ago and was blanked just twice. The other shutout and first defeat came to East Peoria (31-5), who was the runner-up in three A.
“Quite a bit,” said Stromberger of relying on the trio. “They are our returning offense. They’ll be counted on heavily. The rest of them I expect to make contact and put the ball in play.”
Although Leman is moving in from center, there are questions about the defense as a whole due to the seasoned departures.
“Tessa will be going to catch. She’ll be getting the outs we need,” stated Stromberger. “The infield will be tested on the left side early.”
Boschulte (15-1, 0.50 earned run average, 119 strikeouts in 111 innings) and Williams (13-1, 2.17 ERA) will share the work in the circle and platoon at first base. The duo combined to allow just 46 runs to the opposition, which was an average of a run and a half per game.
With the uncertainty of the defense, the duo may rack up more strikeouts than normal at least in the early stages.
“I would hope they want strikeouts all the time,” offered Stromberger, who then added, “You just hope that does not happen, that they’re mature enough to let one error go by. I think they have confidence in them.”
Eureka is the reigning Heart of Illinois Conference regular season and tournament champions. Collectively, they posted a 15-0 record versus league foes and outscored them 125 to 11. With the five veterans no longer around, do they have enough to repeat as HOIC champs?
“I think we’ll be in the running,” answered Stromberger. “Last year, we were an older (veteran) team. There were a lot of younger teams with younger pitching. I’d like to think we’ll be in contention, but we should not be head and (shoulders) above everybody.”
Monday's opener with Midwest Central at Manito was cancelled due to the cold. The Hornets' home opener with Brimfield/Elmwood has been moved from Tuesday to Wednesday with the same start time of 4:30 p.m. The rest of the schedule is as follows (all games will start @ 4:30 p.m. unless noted and all home dates will be played @ the middle school):
Thursday: vs. Canton
March 20: vs. Midland
March 23: vs. Flanagan-Cornell-Woodland
March 24: @ Delavan (doubleheader), 10 a.m.
March 28: vs. Farmington
March 31: vs. Streator, 10 a.m. & vs. Prairie Central, 2 p.m.
April 2: vs. Heyworth*
April 4: vs. Fieldcrest*
April 7: vs. Illini Bluffs (DH), 10 a.m.
April 9: vs. Tri-Valley* @ Downs
April 11: vs. Blue Ridge* @ Farmer City’s Weedman Park
April 14: vs. Putnam County (DH) @ Granville, 10 a.m.
April 16: vs. Deer Creek-Mackinaw* @ Brock Park
April 18: @ Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley*
April 20: vs. El Paso-Gridley* @ South Pointe Park
April 21: @ Spring Valley Hall (DH), 10 a.m.
April 23: vs. Fisher*
April 24: vs. Olympia
April 25: vs. Tremont*
April 27: vs. LeRoy*
April 30: @ Lexington/Ridgeview*
May 2: @ Lowpoint-Washburn/Roanoke-Benson
May 5: vs. Peoria Christian @ Von Steuben School
May 9: vs. Princeville
May 10: vs. Illinois Valley Central
May 12: HOIC Showcase @ Illinois Wesleyan University, Bloomington
May 14-19: Regional
Notes: The HOIC Showcase will be the substitute for the league tournament. Gourley (Aurora), Brittain (Eureka), Ladendorf (Heartland) and McKee (Illinois Central) are all playing on the college level. McCunn will play softball and volleyball for the Cougars, where her older brother, Jared, currently at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, played his first two seasons. SJ-O also eliminated the Hornets on the sectional final level in ’15. IB replaces U-High on the schedule, while Canton is in for Henry. LeRoy (26), Heyworth (23, fourth in one A) and Fisher (20) reached 20 victories last season.