Seniors propel Lady Hornets to fourth district title

Apr. 24—HUNTSVILLE — Six seniors, four district titles and one goal are on the mind for Huntsville softball as they prepare for its bi-district round.

After 31 games, Huntsville finished its season with a 27-4 record, missing out on an undefeated district record by one game, to head into the postseason as the No. 10 team in 5A.

But this season was a little different for the Lady Hornets. The squad held six seniors on the roster who have been focal points of this team for two or three years for a final ride.

"We have to focus and that has been the biggest thing for us this week. We are working on honing back into how we were in the preseason and being gritty," Huntsville head coach Morgan Bryan said. "We wanted to work on the little things so we have the discipline going into the playoffs. We know we are going to face a team that deserves to be there. We want to prepare each week like we are going into a state championship."

Jaelynn Duke has been a four-year player for the Lady Hornets and has made every second of it count. She is their ace in the circle but can dust off the glove and play shortstop when needed. Oh, and she bats lead-off for the team that has posted 199 runs this year.

Changing to the leadoff spot brought some early challenges to Duke but she was able to weather the storm. She continues to lead the team in batting average, runs, hits and extra-base hits this season.

"I was scared in the beginning but once I got in there I was able to help my team with pitches. I've gotten comfortable there. I hope I can keep succeeding like I have been," Duke said.

Huntsville's offense can do some damage when they are on. Seven times the squad has posted 10 or more runs on teams. But their offense has slightly tailed off as the season started to close.

In the final four games, excluding Nacogdoches, the Lady Hornets plated 15 runs after a 3-0 loss to Porter on the Lady Hornets home turf.

But the focus lately has been the work at the plate for Huntsville.

"It's what we have been looking at. In the preseason we did a good job of pitch selection and everything else and we fell off of that for a little while. In the last couple of weeks, we have picked it up and focused more on that. We have to make sure we are having quality at-bats and finding out pitches," Bryan said.

Senior Aariss McHale has been another bat that the Lady Hornets have relied on. This season, she has been another strong suit. The senior is third on the team with a .460 average and missed a handful of games with an injury.

But McHale typically brings a big bat when the playoffs roll around. After some lulls, she has taken a new approach to getting in the batter's box and facing opponents.

"For me, I have been in my head about having to do this, rather than having confidence at the plate that I am going to hit the ball. For me, it's a mindset. I need to step in the box knowing that I can do it," McHale said.

The key for Huntsville in this postseason run will be their ability to adjust in games against a Texas team that has thrown four arms this season and can rotate their arms. The Lady Hornets will need some support at the bottom end of the lineup to get past it.

"We have been working but we are waiting too long to adjust. We need to do better at that and play our game," Duke said.

Huntsville's defense has been strong all year and they have been used in a couple of different ways. With one pitcher on the roster heading into the season, Bryan had to figure out a way to complement Duke in the circle.

Senior Emily Zunker had thrown before and was going to be the likely arm they needed, but an injury shook it and set up the drawing board once more.

With nobody left who had recent throwing experience, Rylie Hammond rose to the challenge to help in the circle.

Hammond made 12 appearances for the Lady Hornets and has a 9-0 record after not thinking she would be needed. She pairs nicely with Duke as they are opposite pitchers.

Duke will attack batters and can toss it by them. In her senior campaign, Duke has struck out 35% of the batters she faced and allowed 18 walks.

Hammond on the other hand does the opposite. In 193 batters, Hammond sent 19 of them back on strikes and walked 13, but she got outs with fly balls and ground outs.

"Roo saved us this year. We had an unexpected injury with Emily during the preseason and Rylie stepped up to help us. Seeing her step up in the role and spinning the ball differently than Jae does. They complement each other well," Bryan said. "We all know Jae and what she throws. I think the two of them have done a good job in the circle."

With another trip to the playoff as a one-seed, the senior class has now wrapped up its fourth consecutive district title, something that Bryan hasn't seen as a coach and doesn't happen that often.

"I think a lot of that is insane. I have never done that and never had a senior class that has done that," Bryan said. "To do that and have it on your resume as a kid is pretty impressive. It tells me that you are working hard and buying into what we are doing as a program. This class is free-spirited but when it comes down to it, they lock in."

Now, all that is left is one team and one series. The Lady Hornets will open the bi-district round against Texarkana High School, a rematch of the 2021 postseason series. Huntsville took the area round series with a 2-1 record and will try its luck again.

"At this point, it's us against the next team. We have to keep on playing our part and just fix the little things," Duke said.

The series is slated to start at 6 p.m. Thursday in Whitehouse. The series will conclude on Friday.