Three straight sectional championship game appearances.
Two consecutive one-run defeats.
One goal: get back, and win it this time.
After capturing its initial sectional crown in 2010, Eastern Hancock posted back-to-back defeats to Union County in 2011 (2-1, nine innings) and 2012 (1-0).
After his Royals were edged by the Patriots last May, EH coach Jack Heiden said that the “best team didn’t win today, but they played better than we did today.”
Another element rooted in the Royals’ frustration was that they topped Union County twice in the regular season last year, including an 11-2 thumping on April 7.
Should it make it back to sectional finals once more and see Union County again, EH (17-13 in 2012) won’t have to step in the box vs. Maggie Tidrow, who struck out 17 Royals in that elimination game and now pitches for Cardinal Stritch University (Wis.).
Ten months have passed since that heartbreaking night, and the Royals are a refocused unit.
“(We’re) a hungry team,” commented Heiden.
For the first time in four years, any EH postseason run will come without the services of Taylor Mercer, who graduated in 2012 as the holder of every school pitching record.
Combining to fill that gap will be sophomore Peyton Neisler and freshman Darby Shaw.
Last season, when Mercer suffered a thumb injury that required six stitches on April 10, Neisler stepped in as the team’s No. 1 pitcher for six games. Against Triton Central on April 26, Neisler no-hit Triton Central in five innings of work, and finished the season 6-7 with a 3.92 ERA in 85 and two-thirds innings.
“She worked hard this summer and looked to be in very good form,” Heiden said of Neisler.
As for his rookie thrower, Heiden has high expectations.
“I believe Darby to be one of the top freshmen pitchers in the state,” he offered.
Offensively, the Royals will rely on the potent bat of senior catcher Savannah Blevins. The Franklin College recruit led Hancock County in doubles (18) and triples (six) in 2012, and recorded top-three county placements in average (.521) and RBI (47). Of Blevins’ 49 hits, 28 went for extra bases.
An All-Hancock County selection in 2012, Blevins tops the EH charts in career doubles, home runs and RBI.
Eastern Hancock will surround Blevins with speedy contact hitters in junior right fielder Allison Dickey (.435, 17 stolen bases), senior second baseman Tori Bednarski (.405, 10 SB), junior third baseman Emily Reger (11 SB) and junior center fielder Skyler Overleese (11 SB).
A trio of newcomers round out the Royal regulars. Senior shortstop Erika Truitt’s family moved back into the Eastern Hancock school district after spending a year at Milan. Truitt, a Defiance College (Ohio) recruit, hit .469 while playing third base for the Indians last season. In 2011, she played right field for EH and posted a batting average of .404.
“She is not only a big hitter,” Heiden commented, “but a sure-handed defensive player.”
Sophomores Katelyn Bowman, Liz Herndon, Nakayla Shelton and Madison Walton round out the bench, and could each could work their way into significant playing time.
This spring is Eastern Hancock’s initial go-around in Mid-Hoosier Conference play. Edinburgh claimed the league crown last season with a 7-0 mark, but lost several starters, including pitcher Nisha Brown (9-5, 2.12 ERA).
The Royals finished 4-2 against current MHC schools a year ago.
Heiden pegged his own team, as well as Hauser and Indian Creek as the top MHC contenders.
“I’m excited about this team,” Heiden said. “It has all the parts that a very good team should have: experience, leadership, hitting, pitching and defense.”