Serious, yet goofy Placer softball eyeing first league title in school history

By: Matthew Kimel, Journal sports editor
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Second-year Placer softball coaches Doug Menefee, Aaron Rubio and Christine Pierce seem to have found a successful formula.

“Watch them,” Menefee said of his Lady Hillmen. “They’re slightly goofy, but I’m OK with that. You get to have a little bit of fun if you work hard. Serious
when they’re supposed to be, goofy when we let them be.”
Under that recipe, the trio of rookie coaches helped Placer build confidence, make the playoffs and earn its first winning season in years, going 19-5-1 in 2012.
This time out, both the players and coaches are expecting bigger and better results.  
With a strong 1-2 pitching punch of sophomore Kaelin Amrein and senior Lizzie Rutherford, as well as some hard-hitting bats like Emma Zoller’s, the Lady Hillmen have their eyes set on something that has never been accomplished in school history: Winning a softball league title. 
“Honestly, I’m going for a league title,” said senior shortstop Brooke Stufflebean, a four-year varsity player. “It’s our last year. I want to do it. I want to get our first softball banner.”
Stufflebean, and her teammates, have the confidence that they can grab the Pioneer Valley League title. 
In fact, Menefee thinks his team may have too much confidence this year, which Placer picked last year when it beat the Lady Bruins in Lake of the Pines last season for the first time, Menefee said. 
“Last year‘s goal was to build confidence,” said Menefee, who purposely scheduled a more difficult preseason this time around to prepare Placer for the PVL and beyond. “We got our confidence. We got a big win against Bear River that kind of turned the whole season around. It drove the confidence in. They could win, they knew they could win.”
Another major strength for the Lady Hillmen this year is communication. 
“This team, most of us having been playing together since JV, everybody’s really familiar with each other,” Stufflebean said. “Everything is more comfortable. We’re having more fun and working harder.”
Said Menefee: “You have 16 sisters, not 16 individual players and you’re going to play harder for family than you are going to for strangers or people you don’t like. We take the drama completely out of it. It takes that whole faucet of the game, and sets it off to the side so we can be serious and go out and play well.”
Placer figures to be a contender this season behind its pitching.
Coach Pierce, who pitched for South Carolina in college, said Amrein played a significant role in last year’s campaign as a freshman. 
“She can move the ball really well, she has a great changeup and she hits her spots,” Pierce said of the team’s go-to girl in the circle. “She was very key for us last year and a major reason why we were so successful. If we didn’t have her, our season would have been different.”
Rutherford will back Amrein up, and also get her share of starts, Pierce said. 
“Both throw a little bit of everything,” said second-year varsity catcher Claire Hansen, one of 11 seniors on the squad. “They can both pitch and finish games.”
Opening day for Placer is Thursday at Oakmont. The first pitch is schedule for 4 p.m., where the coaches hope to learn more about their team. 
“On paper I think we’re very solid,” Rubio said. “In practice we’re very solid all around. Of course, first-game situation will tell us a lot.”
On April 4 the Lady Hillmen host Center, a day they believe could be the start of a banner-winning season.
“That’s our goal,” Rubio said. “I think we’ll be better this year than we were last year. They’re used to the program. They’re used to how things run around here.”
Reach Matthew Kimel at Follow him on Twitter @matthewkimel