By Jeremy Behnke
Journal Sports Editor
NEW ULM - While the New Ulm softball team may have a big target on its back this year, it doesn't seem to bother any of the players.
Staff photo by Steve Muscatello
New Ulm senior Ellie Schneider is one of the key returning starters for the Eagles this season.
In fact, the Eagles wouldn't want to have it any other way.
The two-time defending state champions are ready to make another run toward a Section 3AA title. Although the chapters have yet to be written for this year's story, the past two seasons had the happy ending every team hopes to finish with.
"You' can't beat it, it was beyond expectations for our squad," head coach Kristi Andersen Loose said. "I think they know the target's on their back and we're ready for that."
Last year's squad finished the year 25-3, with six straight wins to earn New Ulm's second straight state championship. Gone are several key players, including All-Journal co-Players of the Year Brittany Hoffmann (shortstop) and Sydney Schuck (pitcher).
The Eagles are aware that it'll be tough to replace those big names and all of the experience they brought, but they have plenty of players eager to step up and produce.
Right now, the Eagles have more questions than they have answers. While they have a couple of spots pretty much locked up (junior Brianna Sieve at shortstop and senior catcher Kali Denn), the rest of the infield and outfield will be determined as the year goes on.
It helps that the Eagles have many players who can play multiple positions, so there won't be much of an adjustment period for the squad. It also helps to have several seniors on the team. Ellie Schneider (3B/2B), Denn, Rachel Strandmark (OF), Patty Gruber, Hannah Backer (P) and Katie Forst (1B/OF) figure to be key contributors along with pitchers Abby Kamm and Tori Botten.
Last year, Schneider was a force to be reckoned with at the plate, hitting .457 with 42 hits, two home runs and 31 RBI. Strandmark hit .452 and stole 30 bases, while Kamm hit .351 and had 28 steals.
The Eagles are still trying to decide the final roster with competition at several spots.
Schneider is a four-year veteran who was a big part of the two titles. She knows she's been a part of something special at New Ulm during the last few years.
"I've just been very lucky because not a lot of people get to be a part of a very good program and being on the team for four years, with a great coach and all the great players," Schneider said.
While she's now a leader on the team, it wasn't always that way. She had to earn the respect of her older teammates at one time.
"I was a little intimidated, to be honest," Schneider said of her freshman year. "Everyone was older than me and it was something that was completely new and that I never really faced before."
Andersen Loose figures the Eagles to be among the favorites in Section 3AA again, along with Pipestone Area, the team the Eagles always seem to meet in the section finals.
They know they will get everyone's best effort this year and they're fine with that. They open the season on Thursday, April 3 when they host St. Peter.
"We can't come in and expect it's going to be given to us," Andersen Loose said. "The girls know that it's going to take a lot of effort, we want to maintain a winning tradition and work hard to do it."