Caston softball notebook: Zimpleman started home run chain
BY VAL TSOUTSOURIS
Sports Editor, RTC
Caston softball players were celebrated at a pep rally that started at approximately 11:45 p.m. Saturday after winning the first semistate title in school history.
Here are some notes from a season following the semistate champion Caston softball team:
The home run chain
The home run chain that you see hanging around the necks of Caston sluggers was the idea of Caston junior second baseman-pitcher Addison Zimpleman.
Some rituals like home run chains are about keeping the whole dugout engaged in the game. Another habit is chanting – or perhaps more accurately, yodeling – “three balls” whenever that is the count against the Caston batter.
“So my dad and I have watched a lot of college softball, and as you know, I want to go to college to play, and every college softball team has a chain of some sort, and I’m like, ‘We need a chain,’ because that makes the game even more fun because in the end, yeah, win or lose, it’s all about softball. It’s about what we loved as kids,” Zimpleman said.
Not caring about records or rankings
One common message throughout the year from both the coaches and players is that the Lady Comets only cared about performing well in the state tournament. Everything else did not matter.
“We want to be in West Lafayette at the end of the year,” Caston coach Jon Burks said after a 15-1 win over Tippecanoe Valley on April 27. “We want to be there. I don’t care about the rankings or the record or whatever. I just want them to be challenged, and that way, they’re prepared, you know, for that ride.”
Caston lost to eventual state champ Northfield in the 2021 sectional and eventual regional champ North Miami in the 2022 sectional.
“I don’t give a crap what it is,” Burks said. “This whole thing is the build-up for the tournament. … Those numbers don’t mean nothing. Look at Northfield two years ago. Two games, three games over .500, go all the way. … I want to build. I want to give them that confidence going in.”
That was the impetus to add a tournament at Kokomo’s new field back on April 21. Caston went 1-2 at the Kokomo tournament with losses to South Bend St. Joe and Bellmont but have gone 16-0 since.
“It’s going to see where we’re actually at,” Burks said prior to the tournament. “We’ve got four 4A schools, three 3As and us. So we’re going in as the underdogs, of course.”
Said senior pitcher-second baseman Kinzie Mollenkopf: “It all matters about postseason. We’ve got to work ourselves up and get as best as we can be going into the postseason.”
Mollenkopf was then asked if she thought the team was on that path.
“Yes, most definitely,” Mollenkopf said. “I feel like we’re all working as one and getting to that place where we all want to be.”
Junior shortstop Isabel Scales has a Twitter account but went out of her way to avoid tweets that mentioned the team’s ranking. (For what it’s worth, Caston was tied for No. 7 in the final regular season poll.)
“I’m a sore loser,” Scales said back in April. “I hate losing, so I really only want us to win. But we’ve seen it with basketball. We’ve had great season records, and then we fall in sectionals. I just want that sectional so bad. … We needed to be pushed.”
Scales amplified those comments after Caston beat Southwood on May 25 to win the sectional.
“We get better with those games,” Scales said. “I don’t like playing the teams we blow out by 16. I told Coach at the beginning of the year, I’m like, ‘Throw us to the wolves. I want to play the hardest teams. I don’t care what our record looks like. I just want to get the end goal, and we got that because we played all these harder opponents because they made us better every game.”
Importance of the Kokomo tournament
After the Kokomo tournament, Zimpleman raved about the importance of the experience.
“A couple weekends ago, we played down in Kokomo, and I think that just helped us tremendously and continues to allow our team to incline and succeed,” Zimpleman said. “These pitchers just have great movement and great spin, so a lot of us as hitters have to track the ball and time the ball up, and I think that can apply to a bunch of different pitchers. If you’re facing a slower pitcher, just think of a change-up, I guess, on a faster pitcher. It’s just about your timing and seeing the ball.”
Mollenkopf spoke of how much the Kokomo tournament helped her as a pitcher.
“Of course, most definitely,” Mollenkopf said. “It’s made our whole team better, and now my team knows where I’m going to throw at what times, so it’s made us a better whole unit because of that.”
Said junior third baseman Macee Hinderlider: “I think it lit the fire that we needed.”
‘My arm is about ready to fall off’
Burks is not only the Caston softball coach, but he is also the primary batting practice pitcher in practice.
He preaches a basic principle to the hitters: Hit your pitch and not the pitcher’s pitch.
“Hats off to the cage,” is a common refrain from Burks. “My arm is about ready to fall off throwing to these girls.”
Caston lost 2-0 in their season opener to North Miami, perhaps not a great omen for the team’s offense.
“We’re more dialed in hitting and working on specific things,” Scales told RTC back in April. “We struggled a little with the outside (pitches), and in practice, we had two tees, and we were purposely just working on the outside. I think confidence too. We got a couple games underneath our belt. Just confidence makes a huge difference too.”
If one watches an MLB game, one might hear the term “launch angle.” That has also been mentioned within the Lady Comets. A ball hit in the air with backspin tends to travel farther, whether it’s an MLB game or an Indiana high school softball game.
On the other hand, it’s more difficult to win if a team is consistently hitting ground balls.
“That’s where with the launch angle you want to have your bat coming through and striking the ball at that angle, so then you get the launch out of it,” Burks said. “If you dip your head or your hands are too close to your body, you’re not going to get that. And in practice, that’s what we’ve been focused on, just getting that launch. Getting squared up to the ball.”
Hinderlider has raised her batting average from .387 last year to .526 this year. And after not hitting a homer her first two years on the varsity, she has gone deep four times this year, including twice in one game against Northfield on April 20.
Hinderlider was a right-handed hitter until she was a seventh-grader. Then she started working with private hitting coach Abbie Overmyer, who turned her into a left-handed hitter. Hinderlider said the right-handed version of herself was dipping her shoulder, but the left-handed version was “perfected.”
Still, she was more of a slap hitter. Now she’s crunching line drives all over the field. Perhaps her biggest hit was an RBI triple against Cowan in a 5-3 win in the semistate final.
The turning point might have been a practice earlier this season in which she held her own against the pitching of Zimpleman.
“The last practice we had, we basically talked to her about instead of worrying about slapping and everything … she’s not very big, but she’s strong,” Burks said. “Her physique shows strength. And in practice against Addison, she’s smoking the ball. And it’s like, just stick to that. And now, I think she’s trusting us to say, ‘Oh, I guess they are right,’ and it’s showing. It’s just so refreshing the middle of our order start to do some production.”
Hinderlider said she enjoys hitting ninth in the batting order. That means she hits ahead of a power threat in Zimpleman, who hits leadoff.
“I feel like I see pitches more,” Hinderlider said. “Even though the top of the lineup, they hit more than me, they get more swings, but I feel like I get on base and succeed more in the nine spot.”
The pep rally
After winning the semistate, a caravan commenced on the way home from Frankfort that drove through Logansport, Twelve Mile, Fulton, Kewanna, Grass Creek and Rochester. Then the bus returned back to Caston for a pep rally. There was a fireworks show in the parking lot before a pep rally that commenced at approximately 11:45 p.m.
“I know it’s late, and I know coach Burks has a 30-minute speech prepared,” Caston principal Chuck Evans quipped at the start of the pep rally. “Right? He can talk as long as he wants tonight.”
Burks told the assembled crowd that he had a hard time wrapping his brain around what happened.
“I’m so happy for you Caston Comet fans,” Burks told the crowd. “I’m still trying to wrap all this in here. I’ve never been part of something so special. We made some history, I guess. We still have one more game to go … and I hope to see everybody tenfold down at West Lafayette so we can kick some Tecumseh heinie.”
In addition to being a coach, Burks is a licensed umpire. He related an argument he had with one of the umpires.
“I told that blue, I said, ‘I wear that shirt too, so I’m trying to keep you in games as long as we are,’” Burks said.
Assistant coach Greg Zimpleman took the mic next.
“I did learn something from Jon tonight,” coach Zimpleman said. “He does have ‘heinie’ in his vocabulary. If you sat close to our dugout, ‘heinie’ doesn’t get used a lot.”
Zimpleman then praised the selflessness of the team and said that the selflessness is a credit to the parents of the players.
“Ever since the Kokomo tournament, we started playing for each other,” coach Zimpleman said. “We weren’t playing for ourselves anymore. We talked about that. … It all starts at home. You’ve got to have support from the parents.”
The players, who were sitting in a line of chairs in front of the crowd, were asked if they would like to say something.
Perhaps exhausted after a long day, all declined.
The final out of the Cowan game was then played on the video board as fans got to relive and applaud a significant moment one more time.
“Girls, go home and rest,” Evans said to end the pep rally.
Fast first innings
Caston has scored 15 runs in the first inning in five state tournament games. That included four runs in the first inning against Kouts in the semistate semifinal and three runs in the first inning against Cowan in the semistate final.
As a result, Caston has not trailed at any point during their tournament run. Burks has urged the players to get off to quick starts.
“We’re just trying to attack and get on them early like he says, but it’s more of just an intensity thing for us,” Mollenkopf said. “Isabel, Addison and I just know that we’ve got to set the tone and the mood for the whole game, and it has to be us. Because we’re the first three batters, and the rest follow, and they do a good job of that. It helps me as a pitcher and Addison as a pitcher if we just get that extra couple runs and just go with it the rest of the game.”
Working with Abbie Overmyer
In addition to Hinderlider, Annie Harsh, Alexa Finke, Scales and Zimpleman also work with Overmyer, a 2012 Rochester grad who played collegiately at Indiana State.
“She mainly just tries to critique little things about it,” Harsh said. “She tries not to change our whole swing, but she tries to critique little parts of it just to help us contact the ball.”
Scales went 5 for 5 with two homers, six RBIs and four runs scored in a 20-1 win in five innings over Fremont in the regional. She said that game a day after a hitting session with Overmyer.
“She just threw me really slow pitches, and I really saw it tonight, and it really helped me get prepared for this,” Scales said.
Adjusting to shortstop
Scales played some shortstop as a freshman in 2021 when the team had Eillie Deming at catcher. She was a full-time catcher in 2022. She moved back to shortstop this year and has helped mentor Logan.
She admitted that a shortstop is not as involved in the game the way a catcher is.
“It’s different,” Scales said. “We have such good pitchers that sometimes I don’t get a lot of action, so it’s kind of boring. I miss catching sometimes, getting to call pitches and be more engaged. But I mean, I enjoy it too. I feel like I can be more vocal with my pitchers and talk to them during the game. But I like it.”
Kinzie and Kylee: The Process
Logan might be a freshman, but she was hardly a stranger when she showed up to the first practice on March 6.
“I’ve been actually working with her since seventh grade,” Logan said of her relationship with Mollenkopf. “So coming in, I already kind of knew everything, so it was really nice to get to work with that. … I’ve learned a lot from them. I learned that confidence is really big in this game and that my team has got my back no matter what.”
She and Mollenkopf had been planning on working together for months even before then, even while Mollenkopf was starting on a Caston basketball team that won the Hoosier North and was ranked in the top five for much of the season.
“So Kylee and I worked every Wednesday throughout the whole entire winter,” Mollenkopf said. “So we got very connected with each other, even through basketball season. We went through some live workouts, so that really helped us, and it’s just been really fun working with her.”
Facing multiple pitchers
Junior Natalie Feather leads the Lady Braves with 100 ⅓ innings pitched, but senior Natalie Brockett has also made 18 appearances in the circle covering 71 innings, and freshman Melanie Pfeiffer has throws 38 ⅔ innings.
So it’s possible that Tecumseh coach Gordon Wood has a plan to use more than one pitcher against Caston Saturday.
That would not be unusual for Caston, who faced three different pitchers – Crystabelle Blickenstaff, Adeline Cripe and Emma Sells – when they beat Pioneer 11-5 on May 16.
“We responded with our offense, which I figured we would,” Burks said after the Pioneer win. “I heard they were going to be throwing two or three pitchers at us or whatever, so we prepared ourselves a little bit for it.”
Junior catcher Jenna Donohoo is hitting .491 with 15 homers and 71 RBIs.
Junior shortstop Taylor Ash is hitting .406 with seven homers and 51 RBIs. Ash hit a crucial three-run homer in the seventh inning for Tecumseh in a 6-2 win over Clay City in the semistate semifinals at North Daviess.
Tecumseh is 24-9. They are 16-1 in their last 17 games. Two of their losses were to North Posey, who made the 2A state title game, and Roncalli, who made the 4A state title game. They have won 12 games by 10-run rule as compared to Caston’s nine wins by 10-run rule.
Tecumseh coach Gordon Wood is a 1974 North White grad. He has led Tecumseh to state titles in 2009, 2011, 2017 and 2022. Only New Palestine’s Ed Marcum and Center Grove’s Russ Milligan have won more state titles.
While Caston is in the state finals for the first time in any team sport, this is Tecumseh’s 10th appearance in a state championship game. They are 4-5 in the previous nine.
Tecumseh lost the Class 1A state championship match in volleyball to Fort Wayne Blackhawk earlier this school year. Tecumseh’s Brianna Marx won the state mental attitude award in volleyball, and she is also the first baseman on the softball team.
Tecumseh also won the Class 1A girls basketball state title in 2022. Brianna Marx, Katelyn Marx, Karsyn Flowers, Donohoo and Feather are among those who play both basketball and softball.
Respect for the seniors
When Caston won the sectional, it was an especially joyous moment for Bailey Harness and Mollenkopf, the team’s two seniors. Also teammates in volleyball and basketball, they had come through in their last chance to win a sectional as high school athletes.
“I know Kinzie and I have been working so hard to try and win one for so many years, and I’m just so happy that I got to do it with this team,” Harness said.
Harness raved about Mollenkopf’s level of focus.
“Her and I have actually been best friends for such a long time, but you really have to not dig into her but just get to know her before she lets go, but she’s very funny. She’s very outgoing when she’s close with you, but she’s very tough, a very serious person. She doesn’t show a lot of her emotions.”
The non-seniors revere Harness and Mollenkopf.
“I love our seniors honestly,” Hinderlider said after an 11-5 win over Pioneer on May 16 that clinched a share of the Hoosier North. “I wish they weren’t going, but they have to go and continue on with their lives and move on, but honestly, this game was for them and for senior night.”
Importance of the weight room
Zimpleman referred to the importance of hitting the weight room as a key to the team’s success. Brandon Kinser teaches an advanced weights class during the school day, and even players who are not in the class are expected to lift before school.
“I’m a big proponent in hitting the weight room to be honest,” Zimpleman said. “Just doing that, it works miracles, I guess. … When we’re in the weight room, everyone is cheering on everyone, and we have just gotten so close with each other.”
Logan also mentioned the importance of the weight room.
“I would say the weight room is huge,” Logan said. “I really enjoy it. We all do it together. It’s really nice.”
Finke also spoke to the importance of the weight room.
“We all hold each other accountable, so we know that we’re doing the lifts, and we’re all working out and to get better for our team,” Finke said.
Celebrating with Smith
Maddi Smith, a 2022 Caston grad and an all-conference shortstop on last year’s team who now plays volleyball and basketball at Manchester University, has been there to celebrate the team’s victories.
“A lot of emotions,” Harness said after hugging Smith after the sectional final win over Southwood. “I played with her forever. Her leaving this year was just really hard, but seeing her just made me cry even more.”
Mollenkopf called the moment with Smith after the sectional win “pretty bittersweet.”
“Just because we played with her for so long,” Mollenkopf explained. “She’s just been so supportive of us, and it just helps to have people come back and watch you, and we’re good friends, so it helps a lot.”
Hinderlider also said she wishes she could have won a sectional with Smith.
“It was great,” Hinderlider said of celebrating with Smith. “She was like family to us before. And I wish we would have won one with her, but she was still here when we won it, so it was great.”
The team has five freshmen: Elayna Blacketor, Avery Baldwin, Kylee Logan, Myli Rude and Olivia Alexander. Logan has started at catcher since Day 1.
Blacketor, Baldwin, Rude and Alexander are newcomers to softball, and they are unlikely to see the field against Tecumseh in the Class 1A state championship game, but the regular players have appreciated their contributions, especially when Baldwin made a running catch in the outfield in a 19-0 win over Northfield in April.
“The other freshmen that are here, the way they actually trusted me I guess you want to say, they have made a 360-degree turn in how they’ve been playing,” Burks said. “They couldn’t even catch or throw back in January, and (Baldwin’s) catching a ball, you know what I’m saying? It’s pretty heart-warming, and I applaud her. And Olivia, she’s nervous as hell out there, shaking on the base and blah, blah, blah. We’ve got to get them over that.
“In my mind, they work hard every day, and I think some of them will come around if they work at. Really. It was really nice to see that.”