Center Grove’s home softball game against Carmel
four weeks ago proved memorable for two reasons.
Not only was the 12-2 blowout of the Greyhounds a conference win, the on-field precision 23rd-year Trojans coach Russ Milligan hoped to see at the outset of the 2014 regular season finally surfaced.
Given every opportunity to be a one-hit wonder — literally and figuratively — Center Grove has since been virtually unstoppable, regrouping from a 1-5 start to win 13 of its past 14 games.
The Trojans over this span have produced 109 runs to the opposition’s 30.
“I thought we could struggle a little bit (early), but that we would be OK. We just didn’t know each other and weren’t locked in,” said center fielder Sarah Thompson, the roster’s lone senior for a program starting seven of them at this time last year.
Replenishing from heavy graduation losses is the ultimate challenge for a softball coach, even one with an IHSAA-record four state championships on his resume.
“Of course you have a big unknown, but I knew the JV kids stepping into those (varsity) roles were talented. It was kind of exciting to remold and retrain,” Milligan said. “Pitching was keeping us in games early, but defensively we were playing horribly.
“It was just jitters and nervousness.”
Of the 39 errors the Trojans have committed, 18 took place prior to the Carmel game. During this stretch is also when the team, now batting .345, was a comparatively frosty 50 of 164 (.305) at the plate and shut out on two occasions.
With the Johnson County Tournament starting today and the Class 4A sectional at Franklin Community beginning May 26, the Trojans are back in the swing of things at the ideal time.
Milligan, who has guided the Trojans to an IHSAA-record eight state championship games, thinks he knows one of the main reasons why.
“My traditional approach was not working with these girls,” he said. “I put more responsibility into my assistant coaches and took a big step back. That’s when this team began making its own identity.
“It’s pretty difficult for me to do, but I realized with this bunch they were giving you what they’ve got.”
Milligan’s batting order starts with sophomore shortstop Delainey Turner, who is hitting .465 with 17 doubles and 17 runs. She’s 8 for 8 in stolen base opportunities for a squad that has made good on all 24 theft attempts.
Next is junior catcher/first baseman/designated hitter Mallory Baker (.344), who leads Center Grove in triples with three, followed by sophomore second baseman Mandy Dallas (.394, 5 HR, 24 RBI) and cleanup hitter Courtney Moriarity (.345, 3 HR, 15 RBI), the Trojans’ junior right fielder.
The No. 5 spot in the order belongs to Thompson (.394, 23 runs) with junior third baseman Victoria Boyer (.333, 3 HR) to follow. The lineup’s bottom third is comprised of sophomore pitcher/first baseman Taylor Hammill (.347, four doubles), junior BP Brandi Heath (.321, three doubles) and junior pitcher Abbey Pratt (.238).
Pratt has so far pitched 85 innings with an 8-4 record, 1.98 earned run average and 92 strikeouts. Hammill is the No. 2 pitcher having accumulated 31 2/3 innings with a 3.76 ERA. Sophomore Maddie London and freshman Maddie Keeley have been used as catcher and leftfielder, respectively.
“The best thing about this group is now when we make a mistake we don’t compound that mistake. We’re fielding better. We’re hitting better,” Milligan said. “The past few years we seemed to peak in the middle of the season. I hope we continue to improve.”
Thompson, a four-year fixture in center for Milligan, is also an excellent student (4.2 grade-point average). Thompson signed in November to attend Indiana University, where she’ll play softball for the Hoosiers and major in biology.
This being her final go-round at Center Grove, Thompson is proud of the way her young teammates have grown both individually and collectively during the season.
“I’m more of an example leader, but once we had team goals, everyone got on the same page,” she said.