MONTICELLO – If ever there's a good time to have five sophomores in the starting lineup, it's when there's a strong and experienced battery in operation.
Courtney Hoffman hopes the mixture of players on her third Monticello softball team results in a winning combination.
So far, so good.
Very good, in fact.
The Sages are 14-3 overall and unbeaten in three Okaw Valley Conference contests after Thursday's 6-5 eight-inning triumph against Central A&M.
Monticello's nucleus centers around two athletes who touch the ball on virtually every play: senior pitcher Jenna Harshbarger and senior catcher Ali Moss.
Harshbarger, the area's top winner (12 victories), followed up Wednesday's 19-strikeout, two-hit performance with a 16-strikeout nine-hitter against the Raiders.
Moss, a four-year regular who hasn't batted under .340 in any season, celebrated her signing with Millikin University earlier in the day by picking runners off first and third base.
"Having her back there puts a calming effect on the team," Hoffman said. "That's one position I haven't had to worry about the past three years."
Harshbarger and Moss have played pitch and catch since fourth grade. They'll graduate next month as best friends.
With friendship comes trust. With trust comes confidence.
"I never shake her off," Harshbarger said. "We work together nicely."
The combination of veterans (five seniors also start) and the youthfulness left Harshbarger and Moss uncertain what to expect when the season began.
"We've surprised ourselves," Moss said.
When the Class 2A state poll listed the Sages as 12th last week, Moss realized "maybe we're better than we think we are."
Hoffman never was a doubter.
"I knew we had potential," she said. "I just needed them to see it."
Monticello's 14-hit attack against A&M was led by the first three batters in the order: Kaitlyn Barrett, Kristyn Barrett and Krysten Wileaver all had three hits.
Kaitlyn Barrett belted a one-out triple in the eighth inning and scored the winning run on Wileaver's walkoff single.
"Krysten had been our leadoff hitter in the past (years). We put her to third to get her RBI up," Hoffman said, "and she's our leader in RBI."
Wileaver also has Monticello's top batting average through 17 games (.453).
Like Moss, Harshbarger's future is set. She committed early to Parkland College. There's a benefit to having the decisions out of the way.
"I don't have to think, 'Who's watching?' " Moss said.
"It's a relief," Harshbarger added, "knowing if I mess up it won't affect the future."
Though she has thrown 20 innings the past two days, workhorse Harshbarger will get the ball again today when Monticello hosts Shelbyville.
"I had some concerns with fatigue," Hoffman said, "but so far she has done fine and responded very well."
Harshbarger and Moss are playing their third varsity sport of the school year. They believe the best has been saved for last.
"This sport is natural for us," Moss said.
"The other sports keep us in shape," Harshbarger said.
Hoffman credits the leadership of her veterans, Harshbarger, Moss and Wileaver along with the other two seniors – third baseman Amelia Alexander and first baseman Alyson Munds – for the early-season success.
"A lot of them have started since their sophomore year, and they're very good leaders," Hoffman said. "They're comfortable (on the field), and the sophomores feed off of them."