Ever since Seneca High School moved into its new softball field in 2011, there has been two very consistent identifying things about the Lady Irish. One they have hit home runs by the bunches, and two pitcher Nicole Pihl had been rock solid from the pitching slab.
In all likelihood, none of that is going to change this spring.
Pihl is back for her senior season and a great deal of those home runs have gone flying off her bat. In fact, last season she hit 18 home runs and had 61 RBI, garnering a second-straight Morris Daily Herald All-Area MVP award.
"My numbers were not quite as good as last year," Pihl told the MDH at the end of last spring.
It's hard to believe, but she was coming off of a season in which she hit 19 home runs while driving in 79. The fact that she will not be the only long-ball threat for Seneca is one of the things Seneca coach Dan Stecken is most looking forward to.
"Our strengths should be our pitching and power hitting," he said. "We have several girls capable of hitting for great power."
The team will also show "some speed threats" according to Stecken, but with Pill in the circle, pitching should also be rock solid this spring for Seneca.
Last year as a junior, Pihl pitched 222 1/3 innings, striking out 201 and recording a 1.97 ERA. She should do the bulk of the pitching for the Irish again, though juniors Kayla Haines and Terah Coughlin could also see time on the slab this spring.
While pitching and power hitting should be key strengths for the locals, Stecken does have concerns about dealing with residuals of the inclement weather so far this spring.
"Our biggest concern to this point, partially due to weather and to graduations, will be replacing multiple defensive leaders," Stecken said. "Our team defense is improving daily but we will need to get through some growing pains and overcome some adversity."
The main holes on defense left from last year are the graduations of catcher Miranda Hougas, third baseman Allison Coughlin and outfielders Madi Shanks and Coley Baker. In addition to Pihl and Haines, others on this year's team also listed as infielders are: Chelsie McCormick (also catcher), Mallory Wilson, Madi Wyss, April Hovoius (also outfield), Sarah Radtke and Lexi Trompeter (also catcher). Outfielders on the roster are Erin Hovious, Samie Stuedemann, Brittany Crowley, Anna Baker and Jacey Lamboley. Maggie Thomas is listed as a catcher.
"Like I said, we have some girls that have exceptional skills. However, I believe the key to our success will be the contribution of girls who are working for starting spots," Stecken said. "A key for those players will be to develop confidence and consistency. I have been pleased with many of our players growth from last season to this one. I hope the girls that have worked hard to improve since last season will see the benefits of competitive travel ball, the weight room and other improvements."
Stecken said that the Irish will continue to want to improve on teams from the past. Meaning that the biggest team goal this year would be to get back to the Sweet 16 once again.
To get to that point, Seneca is likely going to have to get through another tough season of playing in the Interstate Eight Conference - teams the Irish could then again see in the postseason.
"Some of the top teams in an always-tough Interstate Eight Conference is littered with Division I players," Stecken pointed out. "That includes Manteno, Peotone, Lisle, Coal City and Wilmington. Other teams have improved greatly, as well, such as Westmont and Herscher. Dwight is always a tough opponent, too, as they won 30 games last season."
Seneca opens the season on the road at the Jacksonville Tournament this weekend before hosting Princeton on Monday.