Upon entering Tuesday’s season opener, Hays Rebels head softball coach Lisa Cone recognized how much of a challenge her squad faced from the get-go.
Taking on the New Braunfels Canyon Cougars, the 2018 Class 6A state runner-up, with a relatively young lineup was a daunting task to ask of any team. Doing so without the arm of senior ace pitcher Max Valdez compounded the uphill climb.
While there were plenty of struggles in Hays’ 13-2 loss Tuesday, Cone said the program aims for progress as they ready to play in one of toughest districts in the state.
“In the two-and-a half weeks since we started scrimmaging, including tonight, we have made a huge improvement,” Cone said. “It’s night and day.”
Hays (0-1) returns several key cogs from last season’s playoff team. Seniors Valdez, infielder Brianna Rodriguez and catcher Annaliese Rodriguez are expected to provide experience both on the field and at the plate in 2019. Joining them is a senior-laden roster backed up by Jordan Tovar, Amaya Guerrero and Kaylin Davis.
Interspersed is a handful of new faces in new positions. Cone said none of her returning players have the same position they had last season.
“The girls are working hard with those changes and we’re adjusting to them,” Cone said. “It’s going to take time and building confidence is something we’re working on.”
Meanwhile, getting Valdez back and healthy in the circle is key for Hays in the early going. Valdez did not start Tuesday due to an injury.
Instead, Cone aims to give freshman pitcher Katie Noble ample time in the circle to build her confidence. Cone said the one-two punch of Valdez and Noble could make Hays hard to beat.
“District is what matters. We’re not going to rush it,” Cone said. “When she’s (Valdez) ready to get on the mound, she’ll be there.”
Even without their ace in the circle, Hays didn’t waste time getting a quick lead on Canyon.
A two-run RBI triple from Tovar in the bottom of the first frame gave Hays an early 2-0 lead.
Rebel errors, however, allowed Canyon to tie the game at 2-2 in the third inning.
With momentum in hand, Canyon turned to the arm of Baylor signee Aliyah Pritchett, who in a complete game effort shut down Hays’ offense the rest of the way. Hays was limited to a handful of hits and no runs over the final six frames.
“I felt like we would continue scoring, but we kind of went flat. We can’t do that,” Cone said. “We have to continue to push. Two runs is never enough. It’s our first game and we’re not pushing enough. We can’t get comfortable.”
Meanwhile, Canyon’s experienced offense woke up from a sluggish start and quickly flexed its muscle.
Eleven Cougar runs scored hits were tallied in the last three frames of the contest. Highlighting the barrage as a five-run fifth inning where Canyon sent 10 total batters to the plate. Pritchett led all Cougars by going three for four with two home runs, including a grand slam in the top of the seventh inning.
“We knew it was going to be a challenge tonight,” Cone said. “We were fighting and we were right where we needed to be.”
Getting ready for a grueling district slate is the next step for the Rebels. Seven of the nine teams in 25-6A reached the playoffs in 2018.
“Everyone in this district can play. I know when the alignment came out, we said, ‘this is one of the toughest softball districts in the state,’” Cone said. “We’re going to have to play ball.”
Hays travels to play at the Westlake tournament this weekend before opening district play against Anderson Feb. 19 at home.