Royals focused on wins, not records this season

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Eastern Hancock’s Brooklyn Willis connects for a home run during the 2021 sectional tournament semifinals last season.

Richard Sitler | Daily Reporter

CHARLOTTESVILLE — The Eastern Hancock Royals didn’t merely rewrite the softball record book last season. They nearly blew the entire thing up, cover to cover.

With 10 single-season team records set and eight individual single-season and career records established in 2021, the Royals are built to repeat their unprecedented success, but head coach Terry Stephens has just one specific mark in mind for 2022.

“I already told them. We’re not talking about (school) records this year because we got so hung up on that, and me, too. I probably should have gotten some girls in a little bit more that probably should have, but when we were so close to records, we didn’t,” Stephens said. “This year, we’re not talking about records unless it’s our win-and-loss record. That’s what I want to speak for us, especially conference games.”

After losing one starter to graduation, the Royals are in position to potentially match their single-season best 27-2 record from 2021 and possibly claim a third consecutive sectional and Mid-Eastern Conference championship — with the 2020 season canceled due to COVID-19.

“Our ultimate goal is, we have to finish the season with a win,” Stephens said. “All the girls know that is what our ultimate goal is. There are good teams in the way. We just have to figure out a way to put it together.”

The two teams that were lucky enough to hand the Royals an L last spring were the New Palestine Dragons, 4-3, in the season opener and the Union County Patriots, 4-2, in the regional title game on June 1.

In between, the Royals won a record-setting 27 straight games, including a 6-3 win over Union County on May 6 and another over the Patriots, 11-5, on May 15.

Unfortunately, a four-hit, nine-strikeout performance by Union County ace Chloe Greene led to the end of Eastern Hancock’s historic run and Class 2A state championship aspirations last May.

“We knew that their pitcher is really good. We know Chloe Greene can throw the ball, and we know they have some offensive firepower, but I know my girls can hit her because we did it. We just have to make sure we’re doing that at the right time,” Stephens said. “It doesn’t matter in the regular season compared to the postseason.”

If there is a team capable of handling the postseason, it’s the Royals, who walloped a record-setting 51 home runs, drove in a single-season best 282 runs and set new standards in stolen bases (134), hits (343), runs (350), triples (20), walks drawn (114) and strikeouts pitched (249).

The Royals tied the program’s previous record for team batting average (.425) and came close to the doubles (83) mark set in 2015 with 74.

“Offensively, I think we’re going to be stronger. I think, our batting lineup will be stronger this year. Pitching-wise, we’ll definitely be solid. We have some pitchers that are kind of new, so we’ll have some growing pains, but the only way they’re going to learn is by throwing them out there. That’s going to be good for them in the long run because we have to get them through those, so they know what to expect and hopefully the defense is there to back them up.”

Graduated senior co-ace Maddie Turner, who went 17-2 with a 2.47 ERA and 144 strikeouts in 96.1 inning pitched, is a significant loss to the Royals’ defense, but every single other position player and starter returns this spring.

In 2021, the Royals carried a .965 fielding percentage with 23 errors in 29 games, but when the defense faltered, the bats typically picked up the slack with a .511 on-base percentage, .757 slugging percentage and a 1.268 on-base plus slugging percentage.

Only three hitters on the 2021 roster had batting averages below .300, and those players logged fewer than a combined 100 plate appearances.

The team’s leading-RBI producer, and single-season record holder, is back in sophomore Brooklyn Willis (.527 batting average, 47 RBI, 45 runs, 12 doubles, nine home runs, four triples). Fellow sophomore Sammie Bolding, who set a single-season record for home runs (14), returns after posting a team-best .560 batting average in 2021 to go with 53 runs, 46 RBI and nine doubles.

“The nice thing about that (sophomore) group is they’re a coach’s dream because there is no off-season for them. As soon as our season was over, they jumped right into travel ball, facing some of the best competition that’s out there,” Stephens said. “They’re stronger. I can tell that year made a difference. They can throw harder. Hit the ball farther. We just have to make sure we’re doing all of those things at the right time.”

Senior Caroline Stapleton, a Southern Indiana commit, will be relied upon to lead with her play and experience. Stapleton owns the school’s single-season marks in runs scored (54 in 2021), batting average (.586) set in 2019, triples (11) established in 2019 and is the career-leader in triples (21).

She hit .500 last season with 25 RBI, five doubles, 10 triples and a home run. Senior Kaylee Stewart, a Franklin recruit, hit .490 last year with 44 RBI, 50 runs, 19 doubles, which led the lineup, and five home runs.

Senior Taylor Koch, a Trine commit, carried a .352 batting average in 2021 with 28 runs, 22 RBI, four doubles and two home runs. Senior Sydni Bednarski had seven stolen bases last season with two home runs.

From there the juniors provided additional punch in Kaylee Kline (.443 batting average, 39 RBI, 10 doubles, two triples, 10 home runs), Emma Bolding (.329 batting average, 29 RBI, eight doubles, six home runs) and Grace Stapleton (.319 batting average, 18 RBI, four doubles, two home runs).

Junior lefty Madison Stephens, the coach’s daughter, is set to assume the role of ace after posting a 10-0 record with 98 strikeouts in 68.2 innings in 2021.

“We’re going to ride her arm as much as we can, but we’re not going to over do it. That’s one thing I’ve already talked to the coaches about. We can’t wear her out and then have her worn down by the time sectional gets here. We’re going to have some of these younger pitchers figure some things out during games,” Stephens said. “And, if it’s a game they’re struggle, hopefully, our offense picks it up for them.”

Sophomore right-handers Tatem Adams, Cameron Spegal and Emily Hodges will back up Madison Stephens in the circle with the team’s focus on matching, if not exceeding, the 2012-13 Royals, who went 23-6 with a regional title.

“The secret is, we’ve got the talent. We have all the pieces in place. We had the pieces in place last year, but the unfortunate thing in the tournament is, if you play one bad game, then you go home. We just have to make sure that’s not the case. We have to stay healthy through the year, and then when we get to the tournament we have to play our best softball,” Stephens said.

“If we can get through sectional, I know Union County is going to be there because they’re going to win their sectional. They’re a tough team, but we just have to be able to do it. I know our team can do it, but if we play the way we’re supposed to play.”

2022 Eastern Hancock Softball Schedule

Mar. 21 – New Palestine at Eastern Hancock, 5:30 p.m.

Mar. 22 – Brownsburg at Eastern Hancock, 5:30 p.m.

Apr. 5 – Eastern Hancock at Triton Central, 5:30 p.m.

Apr. 6 – Eastern Hancock at Knightstown, 5:30 p.m.

Apr. 7 – Bishop Chatard at Eastern Hancock, 5:30 p.m.

Apr. 9 – (DH) Lawrence North at Eastern Hancock, 10 a.m.

Apr. 13 – Eastern Hancock at Warren Central, 5:30 p.m.

Apr. 14 – Shenandoah at Eastern Hancock, 5:30 p.m.*

Apr. 16 – Eastern Hancock at Tri, 10 a.m.

Apr. 18 – Morristown at Eastern Hancock, 5:30 p.m.

Apr. 19 – Eastern Hancock at Monroe Central, 5:30 p.m.*

Apr. 21 – Cowan at Eastern Hancock, 5:30 p.m.*

Apr. 25 – Eastern Hancock at Alexandria-Monroe, 5:30 p.m.

Apr. 26 – Eastern Hancock at Blue River Valley, 5:30 p.m.*

Apr. 28 – Wapahani at Eastern Hancock, 5:30 p.m.*

May 2 – Heritage Christian at Eastern Hancock, 5:30 p.m.

May 3 – Eastern Hancock at Cambridge City Lincoln, 5:30 p.m.

May 4 – Frankton at Eastern Hancock, 5:30 p.m.

May 5 – Eastern Hancock at Union County, 5:30 p.m.

May 7 – Eastern Hancock at Lapel, 10 a.m.

May 9 – North Decatur at Eastern Hancock, 5:30 p.m.

May 12 – Anderson at Eastern Hancock, 5:30 p.m.

May 14 – Eastern Hancock at Franklin County Invite, 1 p.m.

May 17 – Eastern Hancock at Daleville, 5:30 p.m. *

May 19 – Eastern Hancock at Wes-Del, 5:30 p.m.*

* Mid-Eastern Conference game