The Hillsdale College Chargers will travel more than one thousand miles from Michigan to kick off their regular season tomorrow at the prestigious National Fastpitch Coaches Association Leadoff Classic in Clearwater, Florida.
The Chargers’ season opener is against Lenoir-Rhyne University at 10:00 a.m. on Friday, followed by a noon game against West Chester University. On Saturday, Hillsdale takes on the University of Indianapolis at 10:00 a.m. and the University of North Georgia at 2:30 p.m. The weekend will wrap up with a 9:00 a.m. clash against Eckerd College on Sunday.
Though all five of Hillsdale’s games come against non-conference opponents, the quality of competition the Chargers will be up against is high. North Georgia is ranked third in NCAA Division II, while West Chester is ranked eighth, and Lenoir-Rhyne is ranked 19th. While Hillsdale is unranked, it was selected to finish fourth in the G-MAC this season after winning the G-MAC tournament and qualifying for the national tournament in 2018.
After days of sub-zero temperatures in Michigan, junior catcher Syd San Juan said the team will need to work on preparing mentally.
“It’s really easy when it’s cold outside to get into the offseason mentality,” San Juan said. “In reality, we’ll be in Florida soon, and we need to get focused and game-ready.”
Despite the cold, senior infielder Jessica Taylor said the team’s hitting improved significantly throughout the winter.
“It’s very cool that head coach Kyle [Gross} puts us in a lot of under-the-gun hitting, even compared to last year, we hit a lot more in the fall and winter seasons than we really ever have,” Taylor said. “I think our offense is gonna be fantastic just right outta the gun. I’ve never seen that in the past four years.”
Taylor also said she’s excited about playing alongside the team’s freshmen.
“The freshmen have definitely grown in knowing our team dynamic and how they fit into that dynamic and how they’re gonna be leaders,” Taylor said. “It’s cool to see them find their niche on the team.”
In addition to finding their comfort zone, Taylor said she thinks the freshmen will make a big impact on the team’s offense.
“They’re gonna jump into college pitching and be 20 times better than I was as a freshman because we never hit so much in the fall and winter as we have this season,” Taylor said. “I think it’s good for them to start off their college career that way.”
In addition to a powerful offense, Gross said the team has a strong pitching staff.
“This year will be more of a staff versus a single ace pitcher,” Gross said. “It’ll be more of a staff because they’ve all progressed and developed since the fall.”
Junior pitcher Dana Weidinger said she feels more relaxed and confident going into this season because of Gross’ approach to pitching.
“Since coach Kyle has came on, it’s been very different from what our past coaches have said about pitching,” Weidinger said. “Coach Kyle is more interactive with how to set up hitters, and he’s charting and clocking us more often than coaches have in the past.”
Weidinger also said the pitching staff has come together and feels like a family.
“The staff is gonna be a lot better than it ever has been,” Weidinger said. “We really work well together, and we’re gonna win a lot of games.”
The pitching staff will consist of returning sophomore Natalie Walters and freshmen Camryn Olson and Julia Sayles. Sayles had surgery shoulder last year, but said she is looking forward to finally pitching this season.
“I’m just excited to get onto the field with our new team of girls this year,” Sayles said. “I think it’ll be a lot fun to work with all the new girls and also see all the returners playing again.”
Gross said one of the challenges he will face going into the season will be finding the right balance between the combination of players out on the field.
Although the Chargers have a tough schedule to begin their season, Gross said he isn’t going to focus too much on ranked opponents.
“We have to play our game, and that’s gonna be our mantra,” Gross said. “We have to focus on what we do well and continue to try to do that well, rather than focus on how good our opponents are.”