This year was the year for the Hillsboro High School softball program. With a line-up full of hitters, anchored by a strong senior core, the Hiltoppers were looking to score their first regional championship since 2006.
After falling to the Gillespie Miners in each of the last three seasons, the Toppers avenged those losses with a 2-1 victory on the Miners’ home field.
Hillsboro would go on to beat Pleasant Plains 5-2 in the sectional semifinal before falling to Southwestern in the sectional championship, a team they had beaten just three weeks earlier to clinch the South Central Conference title with an undefeated record.
“Anybody can have a bad game at any point in time and we just didn’t play our best today, and they capitalized on it,” Coach Bret Tuetken said after the season finale. “We’ve had a great season, 28 wins, conference champions, regional champions and made it to the sectional final. I told them to focus on those things, not this last game.”
At the time, that was probably easier said than done, but looking at what the Toppers accomplished this year, it's easy to find a lot of highlights, especially with the seniors.
Three of the four seniors, Kai Hanner, Katie Schaake and Sheridan Lyerla, have been integral to the Toppers success over the last four seasons, each playing in 108 or more games in their careers. In addition to being a part of this year’s school record 28 wins, the class of 2019 also won more games in a four year span, 86, than any other class.
“We’re going to miss them as players, as well as leaders and people,” Tuetken said. “For those three, softball has been their main sport. They just work their tails off at it and it’s showed the last four years for our program.”
Of those 86 wins, Kai Hanner earned 55 of those on the mound for the Toppers, going 55-18 in her career with an ERA of 1.34. Hanner also posted a career-high for strikeouts with 269 (against just 39 walks) and finished her career with 833 Ks in 476 innings.
The St. Louis University-bound Hanner was also one of Hillsboro’s best hitters, batting .490 with seven home runs, 13 doubles, 58 RBIs and 35 runs scored. For her career, she batted .435 with 153 RBIs, 105 runs and 14 home runs.
After batting .478 in a junior season that ended too early thanks to a car accident late in the season, Katie Schaake rebounded in spectacular fashion as she was an anchor in centerfield, comitting no errors in 40 chances in center field.
At the plate, Schaake batted .366 with a home run, ten doubles, seven triples and 45 runs scored. She also stole 11 bases in 11 chances, upping her career total to 64 stolen bases in 66 opportunities (the only two times she was caught were in her sophomore year as she went 22-for-22 as a freshman).
Schaake, who also had 19 wins in 24 pitching appearances for her career, batted .418 over four years with 148 runs scored, 73 driven in and 59 extra-base hits.
Like her classmates, Sheridan Lyerla was also a force at the plate, batting .337 with 28 runs scored and 20 RBIs, both of which were career highs. She would also go 5-for-5 on stolen bases as she finished her career with 18 steals in 18 attempts.
For her career, Lyerla batted .333 with 96 runs scored and 47 RBIs. She was also one of just three players (along with Claire Tester and Haley Major) to be part of both this year’s regional championship softball team and the fourth place girls basketball team.
Hillsboro’s fourth senior was Jaylaan Milanos, who was a positive force on the bench and had a hit in the Toppers’ win over Lincolnwood.
While the loss of the seniors will sting, Hillsboro will bring back a ton of talent in 2020, starting with a quartet of juniors who all saw extended starting time this year.
Shelby Houchlei was solid when she wasn’t spectacular at shortstop and was third in batting with an average of .414, with 21 runs scored, 30 RBIs and five home runs. She also pitched in three games, getting three wins and striking out 20 batters in 11 innings.
Chloe Beck was one of the six players to bat over .300 on the year, batting .352 with 19 runs scored and 21 RBIs. In the field she committed just six errors in 121 chances at first base.
Riley Hemken was the regular left fielder for the Hiltoppers and batted .288 with 21 runs scored and six RBIs. She also had three stolen bases in three attempts.
Zoe Honchell played some outfield and catcher for Hillsboro and was the flex player. Her batting average was a little lower than she would have liked, but she had some big moments at the plate, including a sacrifice in the regional championship against Gillespie.
Honchell, sophomore’s Claire Tester and Erin Moore and freshman Meagan Jorn all saw varsity time this year and will be called upon more in their junior years.
The final two sophomores on the roster made some of the biggest impact.
Haley Major was a force at the plate this year, batting .472 with nine home runs, four triples, 33 RBIs and a team-best 56 runs scored. She also led the team in stolen bases with 31 (in 32 attempts), more than half of the 60 that Hillsboro had as a team.
In two years, Major already has 12 home runs, 52 RBIs and 73 runs scored, with a career batting averaged of .454 and 44 stolen bases.
Wolf was better at the plate than she was last year, increasing her batting average from .173 to .243, but did her best work behind it. The Toppers’ starting catcher, Wolf had just three errors on the year and did a stellar job of handling the hard-throwing Hanner.
Yes, with a regional championship and a confernce title, 2019 was the year for the Toppers, but looking at who is coming back for Hillsboro, 2020 might be just as good.