After leading New Life Academy to its fourth consecutive Class 1A state softball championship in 2011, departing senior pitcher Rebekah Schmidt literally passed the torch to eighth-grader Valerie Hohol. Schmidt handed a small tiki torch to Hohol at the team banquet, symbolizing the beginning of another chapter of Eagles softball.
New Life Academy spent the next three seasons reaching the tournament’s final rounds but didn’t become state champions until last month. Now, as Hohol and fellow seniors Malorie Giere and Sydney Steele leave and the Eagles move up to Class 2A, the leadership torch at New Life Academy is being passed off to a rising ninth-grader once again: Emmy Erickson.
“After the state tournament and the banquet I talked to [Erickson] a little bit and said, ‘Hey, you’re going to do great. You have a lot of potential. The first couple of weeks are going to be rough,’ ” Hohol said. “ ‘Just keep a cool head and everything will fall into place eventually.’ ”
It wasn’t always easy for Hohol and her teammates to stay in good spirits. After making a surprise run to the state semifinals in 2012 and reaching the final in 2013, they lost in the championship round again last year.
“We were just like, ‘Is seriously just one team better than us?’ ” Giere said. “It was disheartening.”
But the 2015 season ended on a much more positive note as the young core Schmidt left behind continued to mature, which resulted in more sophisticated practices. Instead of spending hours going over fundamentals, the majority of the team was ready for more advanced in-game preparation.
“It took us a while to get out of just fielding ground balls without making mistakes,” Giere said. “This season we did a lot of situational practicing and pretty much every ball we fielded or fly ball we caught would turn into a situation. … I think that really helped us through the season.”
Coach Mick Ramey has spearheaded multiple championships at New Life Academy and quickly pointed to defense as the difference-maker this season.
“This was probably the best defensive team I’ve had in 10 years,” Ramey said. “All the girls just fit their roles really well, and we had some really good breaks. We’ve had better players in the last couple years, but these were probably the nine best consistent defensive players.”
While the Eagles seniors led their team back to the top of Class 1A, sophomore Maya Binsfeld also provided a calming force as a first-year starter at the difficult third-base position.
“It was pretty frightening at first,” Binsfeld said. “My fielding has gotten a lot better. … At times I did feel like I was doing it in slow-motion.”
Erickson wasn’t part of New Life Academy’s strong defense this season since she was the team’s designated hitter. She will have a major role in quieting the opposition’s bats next season as the Eagles’ likely starting pitcher. Binsfeld, Erickson and rising senior Krista Haglund face the tough task of leading another program rebuild while the team also shifts up to Class 2A.
Competing in a more difficult division won’t be easy for the Eagles. Leading a rebuilding team won’t be a cakewalk for Erickson, either. But the rising ninth-grader seems ready to grab the torch Hohol once took from Schmidt.
“I learned so much this year. I had a lot of leadership examples and I really developed,” Erickson said. “The most important thing about being a pitcher is to make sure you’re a really good leader for everyone on the team.”