The humbling mess that was opening day is looking more and more like a momentary setback for Monroe High School’s softball team.
There’s no question the Hornets took a major hit from graduation after going 23-3 and reaching the Division II sectional finals last year, but they’ve rebounded and appear to be on track to repeat as Southwestern Buckeye League Southwestern Division champions.
Of course, it didn’t look that way on March 26 when Monroe took a 12-1 beating from visiting Brookville to start the season.
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“It was bad, as bad a game as I’ve seen here in a long time out of a girls softball team,” sixth-year Hornets coach Tim Kellis said. “We had six errors, maybe more depending on who you talk to. And Brookville came out swinging that day. They were roping the ball.”
Monroe did return its ace pitcher, sophomore Alyssa Wagner, this season. But only three players — seniors Faith Hensley and Mikayla Decker, along with sophomore Samantha Schwab — with more than 30 official at-bats last year are back.
Game 1 was undoubtedly a reality check. Yet Kellis knew he had a lot of inexperienced players, so harsh feedback probably wasn’t going to help.
“We had 27 kids in our program, and 18 of them were either freshmen or sophomores,” Kellis said. “We thought we had better be extremely positive with this group. We knew they were going to learn and take some lumps along the way. But we also knew we could be a good team.”
Thanks to the weather, Monroe’s second game didn’t happen until April 5, and it turned out to be a trip to Brookville. The Hornets won 7-2 to begin a nine-game winning streak.
In the middle of everything is Hensley, who will play for Ball State University next year. She is believed to be the only NCAA Division I signee in program history.
Hensley has never hit below .500 in a season at Monroe. She’s hitting .703 this year.
“Coming into the season, we knew that the roles were going to be a little different because we lost a ton of key players last year, and it’s been great. A lot of people have stepped it up,” Hensley said. “I knew that my job as a hitter was going to be get on base and make things happen, and that’s what I’ve tried to do.”
She was the Hornets’ leadoff-hitting left fielder for three seasons. Now she’s batting third and playing center field for Monroe, which is 10-2 overall and leads the SWBL Southwestern Division with a 7-1 record.
Hensley swings left-handed and throws from the right side. She is fast, strong and skilled.
“I’ve been around the program since 2000. She’ll go down as the best player, in my opinion, to ever play here,” Kellis said. “She’s a five-tool player. Not only is she fast, but she knows how to run the bases. A great arm. She can hit for power and average. And if we needed her to bunt, she’s probably the best bunter on the team.”
Best player in school history? Hensley finds that kind of talk a little hard to process.
“That’s crazy to think about,” she said. “I mean, my parents have been really encouraging, and my dad has kind of reminded me, ‘Hey, you are better than you think you are.’ It’s just kind of unbelievable. I definitely wouldn’t have believed this four years ago. But I’m glad that I turned out the way that I did, and every year I just strive to get better.”
Hensley verbally committed to Ball State and head coach Megan Bartlett more than a year ago. It wasn’t a difficult decision.
“I’ve been interested in Ball State for a very long time,” Hensley said. “When I was younger, I went around to camps everywhere, and I was just really attracted to their team and their coaching staff.”
She’s played high-level summer ball for a while, and that’s where college coaches place most of their recruiting emphasis. Hensley is switching from the Beverly Bandits to the Ohio Hawks this summer.
Ball State’s incoming freshman class will include 10 players from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Texas.
“We all went on an official visit together and got to run around campus for a couple days,” said Hensley, who plans to major in biology and hopes to attend medical school. “I love all the girls I’m going to be playing with. I’m really excited.”
She played some middle infield growing up, but realized along the way that the outfield is a natural spot for her.
As for the move to center field at Monroe, Hensley said she likes the responsibility and leadership that come with that. Indeed, Kellis said the outfielders around her began the year with no varsity experience.
Hensley doesn’t mind the switch to the No. 3 spot in the batting order either.
“Hitting third makes me feel like I have more of a job to do,” she said. “I have to score people. That’s my job.”
Her hitting philosophy isn’t very complicated. It’s led to very few strikeouts and 78 extra-base hits in her prep career.
“I like to take advantage of the first strike that a pitcher gives me, especially in high school, because it’s always going to be the best strike you’re going to see,” Hensley said. “I don’t want to be overly aggressive and swing at pitches that I can’t hit. My goal as a hitter is to know exactly what I want to hit at all times.”
Hensley moved to this area from Pittsburgh when she was a toddler. Her father Kyle played baseball for Mount St. Joseph.
Faith has two sisters, Jenna (a sophomore at Monroe) and 7-year-old Rose. Their mother Mindy played softball when she was younger.
“I used to be a gymnast, but after I quit because of repeated injuries, it really opened my eyes to softball and being able to practice year-round,” Faith said. “My parents have tried to incorporate softball into us and see if we could take it.
“Jenna played softball until I think she was 12. It just wasn’t the sport for her. Now she does the high jump in track and went to state last year as a freshman. Rose is in coach pitch right now. Hopefully she sticks with it and I can help her out as she grows up.”
Hensley had to work on dealing with adversity and keeping her emotions in check on the field. She feels she’s taken a big step forward in that department this year.
Why is the sport of softball so appealing to her?
“It’s a team sport that you have to be able to succeed by yourself,” Hensley said. “You have to be able to rely on your teammates, but you also have to give your teammates the reliability that is needed to win a game. There’s a lot of mental to the game, and I think that’s very exciting to me. It’s not just running in circles or doing things that don’t really have a purpose.
“When I was younger, I would let things get to me. Now I try to use those things to my advantage. Maybe let them inspire me, make me a better player, make me have more strategy, those kinds of things.”
She can’t really pinpoint one highlight of her career. Hensley hopes it’s still to come.
Kellis said he’s been most impressed by her attitude and leadership this season.
“We sat down and talked to Faith before the year because we weren’t sure where her mind was going to be,” Kellis said. “You’re coming off three really, really good years, you’re going to Ball State, and then we’ve got all these new kids.
“I thank God every day that her attitude has been unbelievable. She’s taken some of those freshman outfielders under her arms and is coaching them during the game. When she had a bad at-bat last year, it would affect her for an inning or two. Now she just shrugs it off and moves on and plays the game the way you’re supposed to play it. She’s just been a great inspirational leader.”
Last year’s seniors — Alexis Arnold, Jillian Taylor, Hunter Salyers, Sam Key, Dee Henry and Sarah Eschmeyer — were mostly four-year starters.
Center fielder Ashley McNabb was slated to return to the starting lineup this year, but was unable to be a part of the team. That played in a role in Hensley’s move to center.
Schwab also switched positions this year, going from second base to catcher. She’s the leadoff hitter and has smacked six home runs in the first 12 games. Kellis believes Schwab and Wagner are one of the best batteries in the area.
Junior shortstop Shelby York (.433), freshman right fielder Erin Dyke (.405) and first baseman Decker (.368) follow Hensley in batting average.
Kellis had to replace two coaches (Charlie Rose and Jeff Eschmeyer) this year. He brought in Lou Lander and Doug Lenos, and J.C. Kellis is coaching third base.
“I think that’s helped us kind of play loose,” Kellis said of putting his son in the third-base box. “He’s a lot closer to their age, and they listen to him. He’s like, ‘We’re running until they throw us out,’ and the kids have kind of adopted that.
“Right now, we’re just enjoying the ride and loving the kids. This is a good team and they really like each other, which makes a difference. We haven’t had any hint of an issue in the dugout or anywhere else. It’s been really nice.”
Hensley By The Numbers
Here are Faith Hensley’s career statistics as a member of the Monroe High School softball team:
Batting average: .568
Home runs: 22
Stolen bases: 59