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Softball to return to TMP in 2013

By AUSTIN COLBERT

acolbert@dailynews.net

From the age of 11 until she graduated from Hays High in 2001, Melissa Schoepf spent her summers playing softball for legendary Thomas More Prep-Marian coach Alan Billinger as part of the Hays Strikers.

"The one thing I did take from Alan, when I was very young, probably 12 or 13, he told me, 'You will take so much away from this game, at some point you need to give it back,' " Schoepf said. "And I never understood what that meant until I got out here and I saw these kids that wanted to learn to play. Then it really dawned on me what he meant by that."

This experience has guided Schoepf to the helm of TMP softball, where she will try and revive a once powerful program that hasn't fielded a team since the 2010 season because of a lack of available players.

Schoepf was a pitcher at Fort Hays State University from 2001 to 2005, helping lead the Tigers to a Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference title her sophomore year. She is in her second year as a math teacher at TMP after moving back to her hometown of Hays from Sylvan Grove.

The idea of getting involved with TMP softball was a big draw for Schoepf.

"When I started teaching at TMP, it was always in the back of my mind and I think the school's mind that maybe we can get it back at some point," Schoepf said. "What I did last year was started to see what the interest was, seeing who was out there, if we did have the numbers."

The reason for the three-year absence of softball at TMP certainly wasn't about a lack of success. In nine seasons under Billinger, the Monarchs were 165-54, winning the 4A state title in 2007 and the 3A state title in 2008, with numerous second, third and fourth-place finishes.

"Our girls softball program has been successful for a lot of years. Coach Billinger did a tremendous job," TMP athletic director Gene Flax said. "We went through some years that we didn't have the percentage of girls involved in all athletics that we needed for a school our size ... now we have a good contingency of girls coming through again."

While it's far too early to know exactly what the roster will look like when the season begins in March, Schoepf expects around 16 girls -- only one of which will be a senior -- with a wide range of playing experience.

"I have a few that have not played before but are anxious and willing to learn, then I have some that have played since they were little," Schoepf said. "We are going to try our best to keep a tradition going with them and build something we can take some pride in."

Schoepf won't be alone in reviving the program, as she has brought in TMP graduate Alicia Hammeke to be an assistant. Hammeke played multiple sports while at TMP from 2005-09, and was part of both state championship teams in softball.

"I talked to Melissa and she asked me if I was interested and I was really excited. I didn't have to think a whole lot about it," Hammeke said. "I'm particularly excited that it's TMP. I'm excited to watch the girls grow in their abilities and watch our program develop first hand."

Hammeke is attending FHSU and is working on finishing a degree in elementary education. Her father, Curtis Hammeke, is the FHSU athletic director.

"She was part of some tremendous basketball teams, tremendous softball teams," Flax said of Hammeke. "To be part of the tradition, I think it's very positive. She is young and energetic, so I think it's a big asset to the school."

Both coaches understand they face an uphill climb with the limited experience they expect to have on the field come spring. While winning is the ultimate goal, Schoepf is just glad to be able to field a team, and is excited about the enthusiasm that is quickly returning to TMP softball.

"It was just overwhelming the support that was out there. You could tell people were excited about getting softball back," Schoepf said. "We have the families on board; we have the kids on board. And we are just going from there."