In this April 26, 2019 file photo, Rhinelander’s Alex Oestreich delivers a pitch during the sixth inning of a non-conference softball game against Ashland at Pioneer Park. The Hodags entered the season with three pitchers who had no previous varsity experience. Oestreich finished with the best stats of the three, going 1-4 with a 6.17 ERA. (Photos by Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
In this April 26, 2019 file photo, Rhinelander’s Hannah Worachek hits a line drive during the fourth inning of a non-conference softball game against Ashland at Pioneer Park. Worachek, a sophomore, received all-Great Northern Conference honorable mention, hitting .294 with a home run.
6/18/2019 7:30:00 AM Team Review: RHS softball Depleted Hodag team took its lumps this spring
Coach D.J. DeMeyer summed up the mentality for the Rhinelander High School softball team this year following a tournament last month in Baraboo in which it was outscored by a combined 44-5 in three games.
"We just need to try to refocus," he said afterward. "It's difficult to do in a season like this year, but that's what I hope we can do in the last week of the season here is refocus and put together some good games."
Good games were difficult to come by for the Hodags, who finished the season 2-17 and seemingly had every factor working against them this season.
The team graduated half of its starters from last year, including all of its varsity pitchers. On top of that the program was woefully thin on numbers - with only 14 players going out this year. Add in another weather-plagued year and injuries at key positions, and it all added up to a long season on the diamond.
Here are five things to know about this year's squad.
For the second straight season, the Hodag softball team's season was dramatically altered by weather. The team was originally supposed to open its season at the start of April. That never happened.
Rhinelander lost its first 10 games due to snow and/or wet field conditions. The team finally played its first game April 23 in a game at Antigo and crammed a 17-game regular season schedule into a span of 22 days.
"We're going to really learn on the fly here," DeMeyer said following the opener. "We're going to have a lot of games in a week and a half. We're going to have all of our games done in three weeks. We're not going to have a lot of practice time, but we are going to try to get better. That's all I ask the girls to do."
Rhinelander had only one returning all-conference player from last year's squad - junior catcher Ella Mullikin. Unfortunately, her season lasted all of 6 1/2 games.
Mullikin sustained a season-ending knee injury trying to leg out a single during the second game of a doubleheader against Lakeland.
"It changes us, defensively. She's probably one of the best catchers in the conference," DeMeyer said of Mullikin's loss.
The Hodags tried a trio of different players behind the plate in Mullikin's absence - Haylie Stefonek, Sophia McGinnis and Mikayla Evenstad.
Evenstad was the lone senior on the team this season, and even her availability to play was in some doubt due to a knee injury suffered last fall. Yet, thanks in part to the late start to season, Evenstad missed only one game, returning to action April 25 in a doubleheader at Tomahawk.
With last year's pitchers - Stephanie Kuester, Molly Wagler and Makayla Kuester - all graduated, Rhinelander had to lean on a trio of pitchers who had no varsity experience.
Alex Oestreich and Brylee Ridderbusch ended up shouldering the bulk of the innings. Oestreich was 1-4 with a 6.17 ERA, 37 strikeouts and 15 walks over 42 innings. Ridderbusch went 1-10 with a 14.26 ERA, 39 strikeouts and 60 walks over 43 2/3 innings. McGinnis, the team's third pitcher, was 0-3 with a 10.24 ERA, 26 strikeouts and 28 walks over 13 2/3 innings.
There were a couple of bright spots for the Hodags this year, notably the team's two wins against Ashland -the second one coming in what amounted to a play-in game into the WIAA tournament.
"They were pretty happy. I think they expected to win," DeMeyer said following the Hodags' 8-3 win over the Oredockers in the regional semifinals May 16. "They pulled it together and I'm proud of them for that."
Individually, despite missing most of the season, Mullikin received honorable mention all-conference honors. Sophomore shortstop Hannah Worachek also received all-conference recognition. She hit both of the team's home runs this season and her .294 batter average was the best among Rhinelander players who played enough games to qualify for year-end statistics.
DeMeyer is hoping that this season will be only a one-year lull for the squad, especially with some talent set to join the team from the U14 level.
"I think we got probably seven freshmen that are probably going out, so that'll help our numbers game," he said. "You know, hopefully we'll get some of the girls that will work out in the offseason, and get some of the freshmen to work in the offseason, and have some numbers where we can put a good, quality team in there and be able to move some girls around and have some have some flexibility."
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at email@example.com.
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