PCM softball coach Shaun Hudnut started five eighth-graders and a freshman last season in his first year as head coach.
The 2019 team lost just two seniors and the 2020 roster will have only one. So Hudnut’s second season will again feature plenty of youth but every returning starter will have more experience so taking the next step as a program is something Hudnut hopes to see.
“Coming into year two has been an easier transition,” Hudnut said. “We return a large portion of our lineup and most of the girls know how we like to operate and the systems we are trying to install. That helps a lot considering we lost two months of prep time and spring league games.”
Programs around the state all lost valuable spring league games, prep time for the summer and even regular-season games because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 2020 season won’t be like any other. It started late and several restrictions on and off the field will force everyone from the coaches, players and fans to get out of their comfort zones.
“Social distancing has been the biggest challenge. The first day was the most challenging,” Hudnut said. “The girls are trying and adjusting, but social distancing just doesn’t come naturally to 14-18 year old girls.
“From a coaches perspective, we are putting in additional time to make sure we are following COVID-19 guidelines and expectations to the best of our ability.”
On the field, Hudnut welcomes back seven starters from last year’s 9-19 team. The Mustangs were 5-9 in Heart of Iowa Conference play.
Freshman Paige Steenhoek is back as the ace pitcher in the circle and the top returning hitter. She was an honorable mention all-conference selection last season.
Steenhoek batted .329 with 10 runs, five doubles, 12 RBIs and five walks last season. She got on base more than 47 percent of the time and had six steals.
In the circle, Steenhoek was forced to the varsity level as an eighth-grader because of an injury to a teammate. She was 8-17 with an earned run average of 3.87 and finished with 63 strikeouts and 56 walks in 23 starts and 139.3 innings.
“Paige had to step into a tough position last year as an eighth-grade pitcher,” Hudnut said. “We really wanted to ease the transition throughout the season, but an injury forced the issue a little sooner than we would have liked. She really developed well and has worked hard in the off-season to improve.”
The injury also allowed freshman Riley DeVore to get innings at the varsity level. She started five games, going 1-2 with an ERA of 4.67 and tallied seven strikeouts and 13 walks in 33 innings.
One reason Hudnut has confidence his team will take a jump with their record in 2020 is due to his belief that both of his starting pitchers have improved greatly.
“(DeVore) has improved tremendously this offseason,” Hudnut said. “We will expect more of them this year in regards to pitching to specific locations, working in and out and up and down than what they were ready for last year.
“They have been able to add new pitches and give us some more flexibility calling a game. Riley’s improvement will really allow us to approach each game confidently with two pitchers.”
The Mustangs’ lone senior in 2020 will be Hailey Schutte, who will play for Simpson in college. She is expected to be the starting shortstop this summer, taking over for the departed Camryn Wignall. She played third last year and batted .274 with 16 runs, three doubles, four RBIs, six steals and three walks.
Hudnut hopes Schutte’s leadership and energy will trickle down to the rest of the team.
“Hailey’s energy and joy for the game and her teammates is the driving force behind her leadership style,” Hudnut said.
“The other girls feed off it. As coaches, we love to see that and are excited to see her keep evolving as a leader.”
Hudnut and the rest of the coaching staff are still trying to figure out the pieces to his starting lineup. He hopes to identify 10-12 players they feel are varsity ready or can help in some capacity.
After figuring that out, they will then start to pin down who is going to play where.
Steenhoek, DeVore, sophomore Belle Hudnut and freshmen Riley Johannes and Sidney Shaver started all 28 games last season. Schutte started all 25 games she played in and freshman RaeAnn Duinink made 23 starts.
Johannes batted .316 with a team-best eight doubles and 22 RBIs as well as a homer and five walks. She also had a .974 fielding percentage at first base.
Belle Hudnut batted .250 with 15 runs, two doubles, one homer, 11 RBIs and seven walks last season, earning second-team all-conference honors. She also had a team-high 10 stolen bases.
Shaver hit .239 with 10 runs, one double, 11 RBIs and six walks. She was hit six times and had six stolen bases, too.
“Last year was a great exposure year for a lot of young players at both the JV and varsity levels,” Coach Hudnut said. “We felt like we exceeded some expectations that people had externally of us. We will still be young in a lot of key areas and expect more of them to take leadership roles. They are motivated and have a strong desire to improve. The next step for us as a program is get ourselves back into the positive side of wins versus losses.”
Belle Hudnut is expected to stay in centerfield and Shaver should be the starting second basemen. Johannes will move from first base to catcher to replace departed senior Anna Shaver.
Competing for the other spots in the outfield will be Duinink, DeVore, Steenhoek and freshman Skylar Burns.
Hudnut said first and third base are still up for grabs. The players competing for the job at first base are freshmen Joslin Briles and Cate Humpal and eighth-grader Lark Drake. Players who could start at third base include Briles, Humpal and Belle Hudnut.
The roster features 19 players, 15 of which are eighth-graders and freshmen.
“We learned a tremendous amount about this group through last year. They really are a great group of girls to work with,” Coach Hudnut said. “Our focus has been to improve both our individual and team games. To be successful going forward, we are going to need to be more consistent on offense and get some production from the lower half of our lineup.”
Coach Hudnut said no one decided not to play this summer because of the COVID-19 concerns. He also said they had a great parents’ meeting before they started practice on June 1.
“Our parents had great questions, some we (PCM schools) are still trying to determine the best way to move forward,” Coach Hudnut said. “We’ve tried to keep a sense of normalcy in practice as much as possible. We are trying to spread out a bit more than usual obviously. We’ve had great support from the school, our AD Greg Bonnett, parents and our coaching staff.”
The Mustangs are scheduled to play 20 games in 2020. They face each HOIC school twice and then play non-conference games against Colfax-Mingo, Lynnville-Sully, West Marshall, Knoxville, Grinnell and South Tama County.