Most high school softball pitchers who face the Center Grove lineup come away feeling as though they’ve been hit by a runaway train.

Heading into Thursday’s game against Brownsburg, the top-ranked and unbeaten Trojans had racked up 86 runs in eight games, clubbing 15 homers and generally making life miserable for opponents.

It all starts at the top of the lineup, where junior second baseman Piper Belden is the one tasked with getting the train moving.

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“She is the epitome of a leadoff hitter,” Center Grove coach Russ Milligan said, “because we know that we’re going to get a good at-bat out of her. We know we’re going to see that pitcher for several pitches, and we know that she’s going to do something and come back and say, ‘We can hit her.’ And that’s what we want.”

During the Trojans’ 8-0 start, Belden batted at a .559 clip and stole three bases on her way to a team-best 14 runs scored, the third-highest figure in the state.

She knows that her job, particularly in the first inning, is to get on base by any means necessary and set the tone for the rest of the lineup.

“I know as a leadoff hitter that when I start hitting, the rest of the team hits,” Belden said, “and if I start with a strikeout or a popup, then the rest of the lineup is going to be like, ‘Oh goodness … she’s not hitting, it’s going to be a tough game.’ I have to really focus on trying to get the bunt down or a hard hit down or whatever I’m doing.”

Though she’s sometimes thought of as primarily a slap hitter, Belden has started showing more extra-base power. She went into Thursday with four doubles, three triples and 10 runs batted in as well as an .852 slugging percentage — well above the .617 figure she put up as a sophomore.

At the start of last season, Belden was buried in the No. 8 spot in the Center Grove lineup while seniors Maddie Keeley and Hanna Burris filled the top two spots. Once Keeley sustained a midseason injury, though, Milligan moved Belden up — and she delivered, batting .468 and earning All-County honors while helping the Trojans to a 29-2 mark and a regional title.

“She just stepped in,” Milligan said, “and that takes a confident young lady and someone that’s willing to do whatever it takes for the team.”

Belden’s confidence extends out into the field, where she’s been nothing short of a defensive wizard. Plays that would be tough for most second basemen are made to look routine, and plays that might otherwise be deemed impossible somehow get made.

“There’s not a better second baseman in the state,” Milligan said. “There’s not one I would trade her for. When you couple the offense and the defense — she’s made some plays this year, unbelievable. They look like MLB. Backhanding that ball up the hole, throwing a one-hopper to first … you can’t teach that.

“That’s just a kid going her hardest and trying every play.”

With several hitters in the Trojan lineup capable of sending the ball over the fence, opposing pitchers know that it’s in their best interest to keep Belden from getting on base in front of them.

If only it were that easy.

Center Grove’s offense has plenty of weapons, but they all follow the lead of the girl batting leadoff — and so far, that’s been working out pretty well.

Queens of the diamond

With junior Piper Belden helping to lead the way, Center Grove’s softball team is again a state championship contender. A look at the Class 4A rankings heading into Thursday’s games:

  1. Center Grove
  2. Lake Central
  3. Cathedral
  4. Castle
  5. Crown Point
  6. Roncalli
  7. Avon
  8. Penn
  9. Mooresville
  10. Leo
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Ryan O'Leary is sports editor for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at roleary@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2715.