There's really little doubt as to what the goal of the Homestead softball team will be in the WIAA state tournament in Madison this weekend.
"Win one game more than last year," said Highlanders coach Dave Keel.
Homestead (17-8) will be making its second straight appearance in the state tournament and fifth in the last six years when it takes on Kenosha Bradford (25-2) in an opening-round Division 1 game Thursday. Homestead lost the championship game last year to Kaukauna.
While the Highlanders had their share of difficulties early in the season, they hit their stride just in time for the tournament as they defeated Nicolet in the regional and then Brookfield Central and Germantown in the sectional.
Homestead, led by all-North Shore Conference players Rachel Behnken, Amy Keel and Siena Mitman, is playing with a high level of confidence and hopes to make the most of the experience it gained in last year's state tournament.
"Our confidence (increased) over the season," said Behnken, a junior workhorse pitcher. "Every game we got better and better. Our hitting got better and better as the season went on and so did our defense. So our confidence grew as the season went on. We're playing really well."
Said coach Keel, "They started clicking toward the end of the season. We played Germantown really well in the last conference game. We didn't win the game, but we played well. And then in the playoffs against Nicolet and Brookfield Central and Germantown again, we really started to play as a team and played the kind of good defense that is necessary, and started to hit the ball better."
Behnken and senior catcher Amy Keel have anchored the team as battery mates for about the last 2½ seasons. Behnken came into her own as a pitcher late in her freshman season, while Keel has been a four-year starter and the two have developed a strong bond.
Behnken, Keel, and centerfielder Hannah Young are the only three who played the same positions on last year's team.
"Rachel trusts Amy completely," said Dave Keel. "Amy has a very good feel for what pitches are working best and where to throw hitters. So we try to throw to their weakness if we can and Amy has done a really good job of that.
"The pitcher and the catcher are very important obviously because they kind of begin the whole deal. And to have a pitcher who keeps the other team off-balance, and she has 100% confidence in her catcher so the two of them have developed into a really special unit. They're a very important part of our success."
Behnken pitched all three games at state last year - a 1-0 victory over Wilmot, a 3-1 victory over Watertown and a 6-0 loss to Kaukauna - but was bothered by back pain after the tournament. It was determined that she had a stress fracture in her lower back and could not take part if any off-season workouts. She finally was able to start pitching again at the start of the season but has been working her way back from the injury all season.
"She was really special last year at the end of the season," said Dave Keel. "She was lights out and she's starting to get back to that same position she was in last year."
Behnken said she never felt better than she did in the sectional championship against Germantown.
"It was probably my best outing of the season," she said.
Mitman, a senior, was an all-conference outfielder the previous two seasons before switching to first base this season and was a unanimous all-conference choice at her new position. Dave Keel calls Mitman and Amy Keel the "heart and soul" of the team and Mitman showed her preferred style of play when she dived - although unsuccessfully - to try and catch a foul pop-up in front of the Homestead dugout in the sectional title game.
"She's done a phenomenal job," Dave Keel said of Mitman.
He said that the Highlanders tried to schedule some quality opponents during the season which they hoped would prove to be beneficial in the long run.
"That's one of the things that I think makes us a better team and not be intimidated," he said.
Your link to the biggest stories in the suburbs delivered Thursday mornings.
Enter your e-mail address above and click "Sign Up Now!" to begin receiving your e-mail newsletter Get the Newsletter!
- Sports Wraps: Dec. 3
- Trio of All-Suburban stars helped Homestead stand tall in 2013
- Homestead football's Keel named NOW Coach of the Year
- Sports Wrapups: Nov. 26
- Homestead football team did not let down in fine 11-1 campaign
- Sports Shorts: Nov. 21
- Petersen's sixth place leads Homestead swimmers
- Sports Shorts: Nov. 14
- Homestead tankers send five entries to state
- Oak Creek football team overcomes adversity this season