Maroons look to continue success on softball field

Butte Central celebrates a Shawnee Hjelt home run against Anaconda last spring at Stodden Park. (Bill Foley photo)

By Bruce Sayler

The turnout is up, the surprises pleasant and enthusiasm remains high in yet another Butte Central high school girls’ sports endeavor.

Fourth-year head coach Kelci Thatcher said Wednesday the Maroons are anxious to begin their softball slate after finding successes this school year in a state Class A championship in basketball with a school-record 24-0 mark, and a third-place finish at the state Class A volleyball tournament, best in school history.

Girls like Kloie Thatcher, Shawnee Hjelt, Corbyn Holm, Teresa Piazzola, McKenzie Gallagher, Mollie Peoples, Bella Sorini, Taylor Wahl and Megan Michelotti experienced the emotional highs of the successes as team members in both or one of those sports held earlier this school year.

“All of our returning starters are just athletes,” coach Thatcher said, referring to her cousin, Kloie, along with Hjelt, Holm, Piazzola, Gallagher, Peoples, Wahl and Michelotti. “And, this team has a closeness I’ve never seen this early in the year. They take on their roles really well. They’ve experienced multiple successes, and they’re focused on school so they can play.

“They do it (compete) while having pride and motivation.”

The Maroons won the Southwestern A Conference regular-season championship last year, then were second to Hamilton in the divisional tournament. They then won four games at state, finishing just short of the trophy rounds and wound up with an 18-11 record for the season. This season is to start on Saturday with the BC girls traveling to Polson to play non-conference games against Polson at 1 p.m. and Columbia Falls at 5.

The Butte Central turnout was 15 girls this spring after the roster sometimes being down to nine last year due to injuries and lower numbers. Thatcher and Peoples were Class A All-Staters at shortstop and first base, respectively, and lead the returnees along with senior pitchers Piazzola and Gallagher.

Piazzola battled injuries the past two seasons, but has much velocity as just about any ace in the state when healthy. Coach Thatcher said Piazzola has looked strong and healthy so far.

She and Gallagher will likely share games again this year. Piazzola’s fireballing delivery is to be complemented by Gallagher’s excellent control hitting spots and throwing nothing that travels straight.

“It keeps the opponents off-balance, we think,” coach Thatcher said, adding that spectators shouldn’t be surprised to see both in the same game, each going a portion. “They complement each other. They offer different looks.”

Kelci Thatcher was the Southwestern A “Coach of the Year” last spring with a roster that no seniors. Kloie Thatcher and Peoples were All-Conference and All-State and others with all-conference recognition included Piazzola, Gallagher, Hjelt and Emily St. John on the second team, and Holm and Michelotti as honorable mention.

Hjelt is going from the outfield to third base this year, Holm remains at catcher and Michelotti is moving to the outfield from third base. St. John switched to tennis.

The team lists three seniors in Piazzola, Gallagher, Hjelt. The juniors are Holm, Peoples, Wahl, Gagi Chang, V Chen Lin and Chimi Chien Chen, the latter three being exchange students from Taiwan involved in their first softball endeavors. Kloie Thatcher and Michelotti are sophomores as is outfielder Cassidy Criscuolo, who will take over in center this season. The freshman newcomers are McKenzie Norton, Sorini and Hannah Thorsen.

“We’ve had three full days outside in three weeks of practice,” Kelci Thatcher said. “You can do so much hitting in the gym, but you don’t get a lot of defensive drills done. Monday and today (Wednesday), we took advantage of the better weather to go over that.”

The BC program will include a JV team this year after having to forego one last spring. Coach Thatcher said some accounting showed that it cost the younger players on the team more than 50 at-bats over the course of the season, so is happy that that experience will be available again to the prospects.

It will also give her staff a chance to develop more pitchers. Piazzola and Gallagher will both graduate this year. Kloie Thatcher and Peoples have been working at pitching, too, this year with a little bit of an eye to the future.

She said she has been impressed with the new players and how the veterans, still young players themselves, have done so well at mentoring them.

“We have some exchange students and a freshman girl who had never played softball before,” the coach said. “It’s amazing to see the growth they’ve made in a short amount of time. She said another bright spot was that the girls on the team who did not play basketball dedicated themselves to consistent workouts over the winter to improve their softball skills.

“They worked very hard in the offseason,” coach Thatcher said.

Thatcher’s staff returns intact from last year with her sister, Sarah Thatcher, serving as an assistant along with pitching coach Dean Marquardt, Katie English and hitting coach Luke Stajcar.

Kelcie Thatcher said, too, the Maroons are going to be sharing their program and know-how with the younger players in town. A meeting is planned for 4 p.m. on Wednesday at the Maroon Activities Center to tell the plans.

After the Saturday games in Polson, Butte Central will return home to open the Stodden Park portion of its season with a Friday, April 8 contest against Stevensville.  It will also be the first game of the conference part of the slate.

No divisional tournaments will be played this year in Class A. Instead, the top three teams in each of the four conferences in regular-season play will advance to the state Class A tourney set for May 26-28 in Belgrade.

The first steps toward then will be taken Saturday.

“We’re ready to play and ready to compete,” coach Thatcher said.

Butte Central 2016 schedule

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