Cats staying eager for opportunities


Photo by Jimmy Lafakis/The Herald
Jasper senior Hannah Schwenk throws a ball in a drill during a recent practice in Jasper.


JASPER — Hope springs anew for Jasper softball head coach Matt Pryor. As Pryor watches the Wildcats attack their preseason workouts, he sees a group of players with voracious appetites for the game.

“They’re hungry,” Pryor said with a hearty chuckle. “They’ve just all been very hungry to get back after it. I’m sure all teams are like that right now. Everyone missed out on last year. A lot of them played travel ball. With high school ball, there’s just something special about it. With those girls not having an opportunity last year, they’re just hungry.”

Four seniors will lead Jasper this year — Hannah Schwenk, Mia Werner, Kendyl Ruhe and Kylie Patterson. Kennedy Matheis, Megan Matheis, Adrienne Simmers, Aspen Sermersheim, Kaitlynn Mendel and Kylie Morton comprise the Cats’ junior class.

Those veterans bring a great deal of experience to the field, and Pryor underscored the significance of high school softball in the student-athletes’ development.

“You represent your community,” he said. “You represent your high school. You represent your friends. You represent your family.”

The Cats have expressed their gratitude to play, but their head coach might be the most joyous person in the locker room. The COVID-19 pandemic forced Pryor to be away from the sport he reveres.

“We were communicating with the girls,” he said. “Just being at home, not being able to do much of anything, let alone softball — it was tough. We stayed in contact through text, email and phone, but it’s just not the same. It was hard on everybody.”

According to Pryor, Jasper has always scheduled talented teams like Castle and Gibson Southern. Rejoining the Southern Indiana Athletic Conference has presented new chances for the Cats.

“We had to lift that bar up,” Pryor said. “What we were doing isn’t good enough anymore. We set all-new expectations. We need more out of every single player, including the coaches. From our JV coaches to our varsity coaches to the last freshman to sign up, we expect more out of everybody than we have in the past.”

More than ever, this season will require a group effort. The upperclassmen can provide guidance, but several sophomores also seek contributing roles. The prior hardships have fueled the Cats’ competitive fires.

“Winning is fun, but to compete is even more fun,” Pryor said. “It’s OK to lose a ball game, as long as you’re competing. We’re going to preach that every single game now. It’s not that our competition wasn’t very good in years past — it certainly was. It’s going to be more difficult for us to get those (wins) now. To know that we’ve got to get off the bus or show up at the ball field here and play our best ball to win a ball game, that’s exciting. We’re not just going to show up and win a ball game. That’s not how it’s going to be anymore.”

While he endured the peaks and valleys of past seasons, Pryor developed a heightened sense of pride in the Jasper uniform.

“Every team and person brought their ‘A’ games to play Jasper,” he said. “I think the mantra was, ‘Jasper kids get everything handed to them. Their players don’t have to work hard for the facilities that they’ve got or the championships they get.’ That’s so far from the truth. Everything that’s on our complex up here — the parents, the booster club, the players — we’re working really hard to raise money. It’s not that we’re getting stuff handed to us.”

Jasper begins the regular season on Saturday at Pike Central. For now, the Cats are savoring their chances to stick around the diamond until the last possible moment.

“They love it,” Pryor said. “They love being a part of it. Parents will show up and give them front toss. A dad will go catch in the bullpen. People will be here until we have to turn off the lights. It’s just the way it is. The love of the game for this group of kids is phenomenal.”

More on