Sophomore Valerie Hohol is more comfortable as the Eagles' pitcher this season. She relies on her control and excels at stranding runners. Photo by Todd Giere • Special to the Star Tribune
While most players and coaches have bemoaned the disastrous spring weather, New Life Academy softball has found a way to embrace it.
The Eagles have had 10 stations set up in the gym, including areas for soft toss, golf balls, batting cages and two-level tees. As they worked out, one of the coaches compiled video to help players perfect their hitting technique.
When they finally started playing games, the results were more than they could ask for.
“We’ve been hitting the best we’ve ever hit,” coach Mick Ramey said. “And that’s against [Class 3A] and [Class 2A] schools, too. It’s no fun being in the gym this long, but I guess we made the best of it.”
Sophomore Valerie Hohol has been playing varsity softball for the Eagles for four years. She agrees that the bonus gym time has been a blessing in disguise.
“I think being in the gym was a good opportunity to force us to work on fundamentals,” Hohol said. “I’ve noticed in the games, too, that our hitting has been tremendous compared to last year. Girls are making a lot more contact.”
Hohol is one of those improved hitters, but she is also making strides in the circle. As a seventh- and eighth-grader, Hohol played first base on Class 1A state championship teams. Last season she took over the pitching duties, an admittedly scary task after sisters Rebekah and Danielle Schmidt starred for the Eagles throughout the program’s masterful run.
“Last year was really intimidating, following up the Schmidts,” Hohol said. “Those were kind of big shoes to fill. I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with it. It’s just normal now. I can just settle in and not worry about what I have to live up to.”
She’s been up to the challenge. Hohol threw a four-hitte in an 8-1 victory over Zimmerman and a crafty 3-1 victory over North Branch in the Rockford tournament a couple of weeks ago. As a control pitcher, she hits her spots and has given up few walks.
She’s also “gotten out of trouble very well,” Ramey said, stranding as many as 10 baserunners in some games this year.
Trying to tie a record streak
After a string of four-consecutive Class 1A state tournament championships from 2008-2011, New Life Academy knew last season would be a rebuilding year, with zero seniors on the roster. The team’s goal was to finish .500. It surpassed that by four victories and made a seventh consecutive trip to the state tournament with some strong play in its section tournament.
“We weren’t even expecting to go to state — at all,” Hohol said. “We were expecting to have a .500 season and to rebuild and go from there. Once we started getting into a groove, we were like, ‘Wait, we can actually do this.’ ”
The Eagles are looking to qualify for their eighth consecutive state tournament, which would tie Winona Cotter for the most consecutive appearances in state history.
They’re on a promising path to do so. As usual, New Life scheduled some tough, nonconference games against big schools to beef up its schedule and prepare the players for the stretch run.
“It was a good opportunity for us to face tough competition,” Hohol said. “When it comes to sections, we want to be prepared. I hope that we can do as good as we did last year or even better.”