Wildcats reboot to repel rival Raiders

Carolyn Van Houten/The Herald
Jasper’s Nicolette Eckert watched a pitch Tuesday evening during her team’s 8-1 victory over Southridge at the Jasper High School Softball Complex. Eckert tallied two hits and scored three runs as the Wildcats grabbed control after allowing a run in the first inning. For a gallery of photos, click here.

Herald Sports Writer

JASPER — Matt Pryor wouldn’t necessarily call himself a fortune teller, but he’s got a decent sense for seeing what’s to come.

Like before Tuesday’s game against Southridge, the Jasper softball coach watched as his squad sauntering through warmups with a little less zip than usual, a degree or two missing from its typical fire.

He knew what that predicated.

First inning: one wild pitch, one ball through an outfielder’s legs, one run for the Raiders.

Second inning: one shaky throw to first base, one botched backup attempt on the unruly toss, one head coach witnessing what he somewhat anticipated.

“Even through warmups and even when you just arrive here, our team spark that’s unique to us wasn’t there tonight. And I addressed it a couple times during warmup and then we start off with a couple balls through the legs and the next thing you know, we’ve put three errors up on the board,” Pryor said. “So we stopped, we looked at those errors and I said, ”˜What did we talk about? That we weren’t ready to play tonight.’ But we talked about how good teams recognize it. We ended it right there.”

The Cats’ early plodding in their 8-1 takedown of Southridge couldn’t have been too surprising, though, as everything seemed a touch slower in the evening’s brisk conditions. The chill necessitated hand warmers in players’ back pockets, earmuffs for Pryor, other coaches and several players, and gas heaters in both dugouts that turned the cement structures into snug shelters.

But while the sedated start seemed to hamper Jasper in the field, the Wildcats’ bats ignited quickly. Katelyn Hedinger launched a towering double that carried just over Catie Fleming’s glove in right field, plating Nicolette Eckert and Olivia Burger in the bottom of the first. And when Hedinger later tagged up from third on a nice catch in foul ground by Raider left fielder Mallory Peter, the Cats had a 3-1 edge they didn’t cough up.

Olivia Knies wouldn’t allow it.

Making her first varsity start, the Jasper freshman spun a complete game two-hitter, allowing no earned runs and striking out 10 batters, including three in the first inning and three more in the fifth, when Southridge loaded the bases with just one out.

“She’s got it,” Eckert said succinctly of Knies, who retired the Raiders in order four times.

When the Raiders threatened trailing 7-1 in the fifth, the diagnosis was more Knies “playing defense instead of just being a pitcher,” said Pryor, who huddled with his hurler and infield with the bags loaded. “So we tried to get the message across that it’s not going to change. You are still throwing to (catcher Jessie Gudorf) no matter what’s happening behind you, no matter what the scoreboard says. You’ve got to execute this pitch.”

Knies did just that, fanning Kendyl McKeough — who scored Southridge’s run in the first inning — on a crippling off-speed delivery before reverting back to her fastball to retire Megan Stapleton and escape the jam.

Just as Pryor underlined his squad’s leisurely pace out of the gate, Raider coach Stephanie Fleck alluded to a similar speed as the biggest hindrance for her group as well; at the plate, but especially in the field, she said. Relentlessly active when on base, Jasper stole four bases and evoked some unease in Raider fielders with its aggressiveness.

“We’ve just got to show up and be ready to play. We came out the way we wanted to, the way we planned on,” said Fleck, whose team committed four errors but caught the Wildcats trying to steal twice. “When we get to defense, we can’t just fall apart like we did.”

It’s maybe easier said than done when dealing with the likes of Eckert on the basepaths. The Wildcat sophomore reached safely in all four of her at-bats, including an RBI double in the second inning that brought Abby Libbert (3-for-3) home from first base on the hit-and-run. And though Eckert (2-for-3) was stranded on second base in that instance, she scored three times for the Cats, who had five different players score the other runs.

Though Pryor has pondered moving Eckert down in the batting order to apply her power with more runners on base, “basically what it comes down to: As many times as we can get her to the plate, we’re going to get her there,” Pryor said. On the season, Eckert is yet to strike out or walk. Meaning she hits the ball. Every time.

More than anything, the second-year starter has become the prototype for how the Wildcats want to operate on the bases, and “that’s something we’re trying to teach everybody,” said Pryor, who’s seen Eckert churn for an extra base twice already this season when the defense was slow to return the ball to the pitching circle. “And a lot of them are catching on and starting to take advantage of those situations.”

To boot, Eckert offered a putout and assisted on four others, helping solidify a defense that didn’t commit an error after the second inning. And with Knies developing in the circle, it’s a synergy that’s really starting to click.

“Everyone is just ready to go and ready for the next play and you just keep going off that,” Eckert said. “You get a strikeout and everybody is excited. You get a ground ball and it keeps going.”

As are the Cats, who have stockpiled 18 runs while yielding just one in their two contests since losing to Heritage Hills.

“It was a big night to grow up for us,” Pryor said. “We recognize that, ”˜All right, we’re not on our game. It ends now. Let’s turn the switch.’ And they did that.”

Contact Joe Jasinski

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