Story by Brayden Leather, Staff Writer, Herald-Mail Media Sports, March 7, 2020
One could say the Hagerstown Community College softball team stunned the area last spring.
Everyone knew they would be good, but how many can say they predicted the dominance the Hawks enjoyed — such as a winning streak that lasted around 20 games and an NJCAA World Series berth — when the season preview ran last February?
The Hawks may have come home from Clinton, Mississippi a little earlier than they hoped last June, but they used the trip as a learning experience. They faced teams loaded with pitching and speed, and set their plan for the 2020 season based on what they experienced.
"We have a bit more speed this year. Last year we didn't really have anyone we could pull off the bench to go run," Hawks coach Jenna Knable said. "Last year skills-wise we were right there with the teams we played at nationals. They had more depth and more speed than us, but skill-wise, we were in it. We lost 3-2 to LSU Eunice and they ended up winning the whole tournament."
After losing nine players from last year's team, HCC has restocked with talent from throughout Washington, Frederick, Berkeley and Franklin counties.
Last year, the Hawks reached the 30-win threshold for the first time since 2006. In 2020, there's a strong possibility they will reach it again.
They will be challenged right off the bat. HCC will open the season enjoying the warm weather in Vero Beach, Florida at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex (formerly Dodgertown) from Monday through Thursday. There will be even hotter competition, with most teams being around 20 games into their seasons already.
HCC will play doubleheaders against Eastern Florida State, Indian River State, Pasco-Hernando State and Central Florida.
Central Florida and Indian River State were ranked No. 2 and No. 9, respectively, in the latest NJCAA Division I poll.
When HCC returns to Maryland, the Hawks will visit Catonsville, which they beat in comeback fashion twice in the Region XX tournament last year after the two battled all season for the top spot in the region.
Three days later, the Hawks will face fellow World Series qualifier Cuyahoga (Ohio) in their home opener, then again in a round-robin tournament HCC is hosting that weekend.
"We're going to take it game by game and not get too far ahead of ourselves," sophomore Ashley Bachtell (Williamsport) said. "We're not only going to focus on someone like Catonsville, because we have to focus on everyone else, too. We want to get back (to nationals) and that's a goal now because we've been there before."
In addition to talent, the Hawks are carrying over two important attributes from last season: Chemistry and leadership.
"They all get along really well and work hard without needing to ask them," Knable said. "Last year our freshmen were kind of quiet and took a back seat thinking, 'They'll tell us what to do and we'll do it,' but this year they've stepped up into that leadership role. We elected captains and now you hear players like Victoria Oliver, who was quiet last year, being one of the first to say something during drills."
Bachtell, Oliver (Spring Mills) and Haylee White (Williamsport) are sophomore captains.
"We've all been through a season of college softball, so we know what to expect," Oliver said. "We're not trying to be in charge, but we're trying to show the freshmen how it's going to be and set an example."
"We all learned from the group last year because they were leaders on and off the field," Bachtell said. "Everyone's really quiet, so someone had to step up, and we knew to be successful we have to talk on the field and off the field to sort of jell."
The Hawks have depth at each position.
Sophomores Madalyn Kershner (Smithsburg) and Lily Oliver (Spring Mills) will split catching duties. Both were used in a bit of a utility role last season, with Oliver seeing time in the outfield and Kershner at third.
Kelsie Laing (Brunswick) is practically a lock at first base.
"It's hard to take Kelsie off first base because she's 6-foot tall," Knable said.
Victoria Oliver will handle duties at second base again this year, along with Sara Bittinger (Boonsboro). Oliver's double-play partners at shortstop this year will be Mackenzie Miller (Waynesboro) and Hailey Booth (Clear Spring).
"I always say Hailey Booth is sort of like our swiss army knife," Knable said. "She can do everything. If we need her to go to right field, she's going to go to right field. If we need her to play middle infield, she's going to do that."
Third base will be home to Batchell, with Kershner in line to see time at the hot corner again this year as well as Lily Oliver.
The outfield offers some flexibility, with White being somewhat of the "quarterback." With more outfielders on the roster this spring, White will be called upon to pitch more this year after having the opportunity to do so just once last year.
With Emily Talbert now playing at Frostburg, HCC no longer has a true "go-to" arm. But that doesn't mean pitching will be a weak spot.
"We're definitely going to split pitching duties this year," Knable said. "Hailey Booth will get some pitching time along with Haylee White, and Jordyn Brown will kind of be our ace. She was pretty good for us in the fall, so we're excited."
As the Hawks prepare to open the season, they seem poised to have a shot at defending their Region XX crown. No team in HCC softball history has made back-to-back trips to the NJCAA World Series.
"What excites me for the year is that we're all new to playing together and we have a lot of things this year that we didn't last year," Victoria Oliver said. "We all work well together and we're all friends. There's no groups and no one is separating themselves. I'm excited for the season. I think it's going to be a lot of fun."