UNION MILLS -- Two years ago, Hebron coach Craig Doelling started seven freshmen that he knew would be the future of the softball program.
As that class's junior season gears up for the state tournament, the arrow continues to point upward for the senior-less Hawks (18-2), who are aiming to build on their 17-9 and 20-4 finishes from the last two springs.
"I do think we're seeing at least some of that," Doelling said. "Their freshman year was good, last year was better. You get a big group coming in, (last year) was not a big group, but it was another clump of kids coming in, so you've got to get that gel happening. It's once you find that and everybody's comfortable with who they are and who they're with. It's about team chemistry and kudos to them. they've done a very good job supporting their teammates even when they don't have the best day. That's what it's about. The team chemistry right now is pretty darn good."
Junior pitcher Brooke Cunningham acknowledged that it hasn't always been that way, even though several of the players have town ball and/or travel ball experience together.
"I do better now because our team gets along way better, so my mindset's way different than it was," she said. "We just couldn't get along. My freshman year, I threw a lot of balls. We definitely all know each other way better. We get along. I think we'll go far. I figured this year's going to be good and I think next year's going to be even better probably because we're all going to know each other more."
Class 2A No. 3 Hebron ran the table in the Porter County Conference, capturing an outright title that it has shared the last two years, only to bow out in the opening game of the sectional. While the PCC tournament, which they last won in 2017, is the immediate task at hand, the Hawks have their sights on bigger goals.
"I'm excited for the postseason, sectionals and regionals," said sophomore Addison Toczek, wearing Batman eye black. "I feel like we're doing better this season. We've bonded together. We pick each other up a lot better."
Toczek, a Little League All Stars teammate with Cunningham a few years back, hit her team-high ninth home run to jump start Thursday's PCC tourney opener with host South Central, and Cunningham didn't need any more offensive support, spinning a three-hit, 10-strikeout shutout as the Hawks advanced 5-0.
"South Central always means a lot," Cunningham said.
S.C. had scoring chances early but Cunningham retired 11 in a row to end with a flourish.
"If I push too hard, then I suck," she said, listing her curve, rise and change as her preferred order of pitches. "It's not accurate."
Satellites throwing errors gave Hebron two runs in the second and the Hawks added two more in the seventh, when they nicked Lexi Johnson for five singles, including an RBI knock by Halie Kinkade.
"They do the work," Doelling said. "They've done a very good job supporting their teammates even when they don't have the best day. That's what it's about, getting comfortable with who you're with. All the conference games are big games. We're such a small area, everybody knows everybody. Everything now's about the post-season. You just take it a game at a time. We're cautious but very optimistic at this point with the group. That's all I'll say."
South Central (12-5), last year's Class A state runner-up, can only hope to get a third crack at Hebron in the Class 2A sectional, which the Satellites will host in two weeks.
"They're a solid team. Brooke knows where to put her pitches. I have the utmost respect for them," Satellites coach Tony Wallace said. "They had a core playing together. That's great for a program. That's what we don't seem to have. Back here on this field again, that's a tough order to beat a team three times. If I had to pick a game to win, I'll give up the PCC for the sectional."