In this May 7, 2018 file photo, Rhinelander’s Ella Mullikin slides into second base during a Great Northern Conference softball doubleheader against Lakeland at Lenz Field in Minocqua. Mullikin is the top returning offensive player for the Hodags, after hitting .275 with three doubles and nine RBIs in the GNC last season. (Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
Date Opponent Time
4/1 at Merrill ppd.
4/2 at Tomahawk* ppd.
4/4 at Lakeland* ppd.
4/9 NORTHLAND PINES* ccd.
4/11 at Medford* 5 p.m.
4/12 MARSHFIELD ccd.
4/13 Stratford Invite 10 a.m.
4/16 at Wausau West 4:30 p.m.
4/18 MOSINEE* 5 p.m.
4/22 at Wausau East 4:30 p.m.
4/23 at Antigo* 5 p.m.
4/25 TOMAHAWK* 5 p.m.
4/26 CRANDON 1:30
4/26 ASHLAND 5:30
4/29 ANTIGO* 5 p.m.
4/30 LAKELAND* 5 p.m.
5/2 at N'land Pines (DH)* 4:30 p.m.
5/7 MEDFORD* 5 p.m.
5/11 Baraboo Invite 11 a.m.
5/14 at Mosinee* 5 p.m.
5/16 Regionals TBA
* Conference games | HOME GAMES IN CAPS
4/11/2019 7:30:00 AM Team preview: RHS softball Hodags look to retool with young squad
Plenty of question marks surround the Rhinelander High School softball team entering the 2019 season. Exactly how those questions will be answered remains to be seen.
One thing is certain, this year's squad won't bear any resemblance to last year's up-and-down squad that went 13-10 overall, including a win over eventual Division 3 state runner-up Tomahawk, but also had losses to Wausau East, Lakeland and Northland Pines - programs that have struggled in softball.
Between graduation and injuries, the Hodags are down seven key pieces from last year's team, and will be relying on a number of underclassmen to fill the void.
"We have some big shoes to fill," coach D.J. DeMeyer said. "We're going to be quite a bit younger. We're going to have more of a junior-laden team ... We've got a couple of sophomores that are going to step up."
Rhinelander's chief concern is pitching as it graduated Stephanie Kuester and Molly Wagler who, between them, combined to eat up more than 90 percent of the team's innings last year. In the mix to replace those three are a trio of juniors -Sophia McGinnis, Alex Oestreich and Brylee Ridderbusch -who have zero experience in the varsity circle.
The hope was to give them some time last year, but McGinnis and Ridderbusch were hindered by arm injuries and Oestreich logged most of her innings on JV. Exactly who evolves into Rhinelander's top choice remains to be seen, but DeMeyer said he could easily envision a platoon situation between the pitchers.
"Really, we have unproven pitchers on the varsity level," DeMeyer said. "I think they're capable of doing it. If they can kept the ball down, hit their spots and let the defense do the work, we'll be in a lot of games and we'll win a lot of games. I don't know if we have a girl like (2017 starter) Ali (Schickert) or Steph (Kuester) who can go a full two games or a game and a half in a doubleheader. I don't think they can do that. Hopefully we can build them up to that, but you might see multiple pitchers every game.
"We're not going to have a flame thrower. That's not to say Brylee or Sophie can't get there on occasion, but they're not consistently there. Alex isn't going to be throwing it by people, but she can really hit her spots and she can move the ball. As long as she does that, she'll be fine."
Regardless of who does the pitching, their battery mate will likely be another junior. Ella Mullikin returns behind the plate and has the best numbers of any of the team's returning players after hitting .275 with three doubles and nine RBIs in GNC play a season ago.
Sophomore Hannah Worachek is back, as is junior Jaiden Thiel, who missed much of last season with a hip injury sustained in the team's first game of the year.
The Hodags will need to find some answers, offensively after graduating the pop from the top of their lineup.
Makayla Kuester won the GNC triple crown in 2017, leading the conference in average, home runs and RBIs. Her numbers dipped a bit last year as teams pitched around her but Stephanie Kuester, her twin sister, hit .439 in the GNC with a home run and seven RBIs.
"I think we have some girls who can hit," DeMeyer said. "Are we six, seven deep on that power? Probably not, but we might be four, five deep. It all depends. There are some girls that haven't proven themselves on the varsity level, but I've seen them hit the ball very hard. They are hitting it very hard in the cage and, if they can correlate that to the game, that would be fantastic."
Compounding the team's depth issues is the fact that the team's lone senior, Mikayla Evenstad, is still recovering from a knee injury sustained last fall. She has been penciled in to return to her role as the team's starting centerfielder, but when she will be cleared to play is still uncertain.
"Obviously, I like to have (Mikayla) back there because she does a fantastic job in the outfield," DeMeyer said. "She's a leader out there and she's a great kid. She's a great athlete. She's positive and works hard. That's a big loss and, hopefully, it's not a loss for the season. With that, we've got to find someone who can step into that role and I don't know (who) yet, because we haven't been outside."
As for the GNC, DeMeyer expects Mosinee to continue its dominance after winning the conference title and advancing all the way to the state championship game in Division 2 a season ago before losing to Whitnall 3-1.
Tomahawk lost a number of key players from their D3 state runner-up squad, including conference player of the year Rachel Dallman. DeMeyer said he expects Antigo and Medford to be solid, and improvement from Lakeland and Northland Pines.
"I'm not too concerned about our record," he said. "I just want to be improving every game. If we can be improving by playoffs, we'll let that just go and we'll be playing our best ball. I think we can surprise some teams. It's just depends how our pitching holds up and our defense."
So far, Mother Nature has interferred with the coaches' ability to assess the team on the field. Five of the team's first six scheduled games have been canceled or postponed due to snow. It's likely it will be six of six, but a call about today's game at Medford had not been made prior to the deadline for this edition.
Weather permitting, the Hodags will play in a tournament Saturday at Stratford.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at email@example.com.
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