The last three years have been special ones for the Hillsboro High School softball team as the Toppers have won 67 games, including their first regional championship in 13 years.
Senior Shelby Houchlei has been a key part of that success and now, she hopes to continue her winning ways next year at the collegiate level.
Houchlei, the daughter of Josh and Shannon Houchlei, signed her letter of intent to play softball for Kaskaskia College on Wednesday, Nov. 20, with her family and past, present and future coaches surrounding her.
"I feel like Shelby's potential impact is almost limitless. I have known her for several years now and I can testify to three things: her talent is unquestionable, her mentality is fierce and she is as good a person as she is a ball player," said Kaskaskia Coach John Barnes. "As proven as she has been, I know she embraces hard work and that she will be ready to compete with her teammates to earn a spot."
Mainly an infielder for Coach Bret Tuetken's club, Houchlei has been one of Hillsboro's best hitters the last two years. As a sophomore, she hit .337 with a homer, four triples and five doubles, striking out just six times in 83 at-bats.
Her success at the plate continued in her junior year as she batted .414 with five home runs, two triples, eight doubles and 30 runs batted in. Houchlei also showed continued mastery of the strike zone, striking out just seven times in 99 at-bats.
But beyond the batter's box, the chance to play for the Blue Angels is an opportunity for her to spread her wings, so to speak.
With 2019 grads Kai Hanner and Katie Schaake ahead of her in the pitching rotation, Houchlei hasn't seen much time in the circle during her high school career. That will change during her senior year and when she gets to Kaskaskia, where she is expected to pitch and play the field.
"I like to be at the head of everything, so I'm very excited about that," said Houchlei. "I'd rather pitch than play any other position."
While her chances in the circle have been limited at the high school level, she has made the most out of them. As a junior she went 2-0 with a 3.27 ERA in three appearances, with 23 strikeouts and just four walks.
Last year she was even better, allowing just five hits and one earned run in 11 innings for an ERA of 0.64. In her three wins on the mound, she struck out 20, with just three walks and one hit batter.
While she hasn't pitched much yet in high school, Houchlei has been one of the top hurlers for her travel softball teams, the Black Widows, coached by Brandon Flanigan, and the K&R Lightning, coached by Randy Brown, who Houchlei credits for being one of the first to see her potential.
"He put me in the center and told me that I could really be something," Houchlei said of Brown, who started coaching her when she was eight years old. "He's the one who really started everything for me."
Houchlei also thanked her parents for pushing her and for their support over the years.
"They've taken me to every softball tournament and have never missed," she said. "They've been my two biggest supporters."
With Kaskaskia located just over an hour away in Centralia, the school's proximity to Hillsboro and her closeness with her parents was one of the factors in Houchlei's decision.
"It's close to home and I really want my parents to come out and watch," Houchlei said. "Overall, when I looked back on all of my offers, I thought this was the best fit for me for my next two years."
Off the field, Houchlei has been just as successful. Involved in student government, the Interact Club and the National Honor Society, she carries a 4.12 grade point average and will be pursuing a career as a nurse practitioner, starting with pre-med and biology courses at Kaskaskia.
She also has her sights set at continuing her softball career after her two years at Kaskaskia are complete. But until then, Coach Barnes thinks she will make an impact for the Blue Angels very soon.
"I don't think it will take long before she becomes a leader, with her voice and by example," Coach Barnes said. "With all the talent we plan to have, a person like Shelby is a going to help push everyone to get better."