OTTUMWA — The Indian Hills softball team usually has to travel several miles from home to find a season-opening game in February.
This weekend, the eighth-ranked Warriors will be just 60 miles from Ottumwa, playing indoors in state at Southeastern’s TURF Tournament.
The Turf, a 79,000-square foot facility enclosed by a dome 79 feet above eight soccer fields and a pair of softball diamonds located along side the Burlington Rec Plex, will allow several junior college softball teams from the Midwest including the Warriors to open their season without making long trips south or west. While there may still be snow on the ground outside in southern Iowa with temperatures in the 30s, IHCC will look to heat things up indoors facing Kirkwood, Spoon River, John Wood and Illinois Central as part of the 16-game, two-day weekend tournament.
“I’m excited for the spring season to open up. I’m excited for what our team can do against some live pitching from different people,” IHCC head softball coach Lindsay Diehl said. “I feel like we’ll have a good turnout, not just families but also kids that have taken part in our camps over the winter. They want to know when we’re playing, so I’m excited about that.”
Saturday’s game with Kirkwood, the second of the 16 games to be played in the Southeastern tournament, will mark just the second in-state season opener for the Warriors softball team in the past two decades. The only other season opener in Iowa for the Warriors came in the final two games of Northern Iowa’s marathon tournament held at the UNI-Dome, requiring Indian Hills to begin play late on a Friday night for the first of two back-to-back games with the Warriors finally securing two wins the following Saturday morning shortly after 3 a.m.
This time, IHCC has a somewhat reasonable 9:45 a.m. first pitch against the Eagles. The Warriors play later Saturday afternoon against Spoon River at 4:45 p.m. On Sunday, Indian Hills faces John Wood at 3 p.m. and Illinois Central in the 15th of the 16 games at approximately 6:30 p.m.
No overnight softball required this time. For many of the returning Warrior softball players, it will be a welcome change compared to last year’s long season-opening trip to Texas.
“It wasn’t great on us mentally or physically last year opening the season down there. It just kind of started to drag on us,” Indian Hills sophomore pitcher Alexis Groet said. “We had to take finals down there. We were not back here to work on our school work. We were traveling, doing school work and playing. This year should be different. We have a shorter trip closer to home with plenty of fans to support us, but we’re also facing some good teams. We know what to expect and we’ve really being gelling as a team, working hard every day to get the job done.”
Groet is one of the main reasons why Indian Hills has high hopes for a special 2020 season. The former all-state ace of the state champion Oskaloosa Indians became the first pitcher in the history of the IHCC softball program to record over 300 strikeouts in a single season, finishing with 301 and 23 wins as the Warriors finished 42-18 with a 24-game winning streak that helped carry Indian Hills to a top-eight finish in the NJCAA National Tournament.
Groet, fellow sophomore pitchers Nina Hendricks and Jakala Hall are joined by former Des Moines East ace C.J. Banner, giving Diehl plenty of options to start in the circle both this weekend and throughout this spring.
“I know that makes Alexis feel a little more relieved knowing she’s got plenty of help on the pitching staff,” Diehl said. “When we played this fall, we had five pitchers. I know she feels a sense of relief knowing she doesn’t have to throw every inning of every game for us to be successful. There were a lot of kids that stepped up and did some good things. I’m excited to see what our pitching staff can do to help us out.”
The batting order figures to give opposing pitchers plenty to worry about with the only three hitters in program history to record 20 or more home runs in a single season back in the line-up for 2020. Brooke Snider, the reigning ICCAC player of the year, is joined by Chloe Olson and Macy Harrington as the trio that had over 70 of IHCC’s 102 home runs last season.
“It definitely brings a lot of confidence to the team knowing what we’ve got in all the players that are back from last year, but I think the freshmen that have come in are going to add another level to the hitting power we already have,” Snider said. “There are a lot of players on this team that can be dangerous with the bat. If you decide to walk one of us, there’s another player waiting in the line up that bring that runner home. It’s going to be a difficult position that we plan on putting a lot of teams and a lot of coaches into deciding what they want to do.
“I don’t know what to expect in this tournament, but anytime you step in and see your team face live pitching for the first time, there’s plenty of excitement and adrenaline that starts pumping,” Diehl added. “I try to focus on hitting home runs. I brag about our girls all the time, but I want our focus to be putting good swings on good pitches. The ball will wind up on the other side of the fence when it’s supposed to.”