Scholastic Profile: Eagles’ Hillenbrand puts team first

Erika Hillenbrand's willingness to change positions has helped Duanesburg remain a softball power.

With any other player, John Conway might have been more hesitant.

But when the Duanesburg softball coach went to his best player early in the season and asked her to give up two of the things that had defined her career, he got the expected response.

“She’s such a great kid, she never questioned it or made a big deal out of it,” said Conway, who asked senior Erika Hillenbrand to drop down two places from her leadoff spot in the batting order, and move to third base from shortstop early this season, her fifth on the varsity. “She’s very loyal like that. She just does what’s asked of her.”

“It didn’t matter, as long as I was playing,” said Hillenbrand, one of just two seniors on the team that wrapped up the program’s 11th straight Western Athletic Conference Southern Division title on Tuesday. “I enjoy playing, and as long as I’m out there, somewhere, I’m happy.”

Somewhere, though, is usually the pitching circle.

“She really is an outstanding pitcher, but really, she’s just a great player,” said Conway, who got Hillenbrand interested in the sport when she was in elementary school.

“I was big into bowling,” said Hill­enbrand of her athletic pursuits in fourth grade. “I tried basketball, but that was a constant conflict with bowling.

“Coach got me interested in softball. I started playing, and have played just softball ever since, through Little League and up to varsity.”

The progression led to Hillenbrand earning a spot on the varsity as an eighth-grader.

“She played a little bit, and we could see she was going to be a real good player,” said Conway. “She’s been a big part of everything we’ve done the last four years.”

That included a trip to the state semifinals in 2006, and two straight Class C championships.

But with Hillenbrand and Stephanie Holt the only seniors on this year’s team, Conway approached his best player and asked her to make some changes.

The move to third base allowed Conway to slide freshman Breanne Hotaling into the shortstop spot. The change in the batting order produced the desired effect of Hill­enbrand displaying a powerful batting stoke and maximizing her penchant for driving in teammates.

“She’s not the biggest kid, but she’s got some power,” said Conway. “She’s hit a couple out to straightaway center in our ballpark.”

Not that it began smoothly. In one of her intial at-bats in the three spot, Hillenbrand popped up with runners in scoring position.

“I was thinking, ‘Why am I hitting third?’ ” Hillenbrand recalled. “It’s just a different approach.

“When I was battting leadoff, I had to concentrate on getting on base. Batting third, I’m trying to drive in runners.”

On defense, Hillenbrand shares third base with 11th-grader Colby Hochmuth. Conway has often used both in a game.

Hillenbrand stepping aside to help groom players for next season has not gone unnoticed.

“She’s always the first one to congratulate an eighth-grader or a freshman when they’ve had some success,” Conway said. “She’s a positive influence on our young team.”

And an influence in every game the Eagles play.

In one late-season game, Hillenbrand smacked a pair of home runs (good for five RBI) and

delivered another run with a fly ball. The display earned Hillenbrand an intentional walk — with the bases loaded — in her next at-bat.

“I took it as a sign of respect,” Hillenbrand said.

After playing on teams coached by her father, George — who also served as her catcher while she developed as a pitcher — Hillenbrand hopes to continue her career at Union College.

“Coach Brown [Union coach Pete Brown] said I could get to play a lot of different positions,” said Hillenbrand, who plans to study biology and forensic science.

Before that, Hillenbrand wants to help her team return to the state tournament. The Eagles lost in the state finals in 2006, and were

denied a return trip when eventual state Class C champ Hoosic Valley beat them in the Section II Class CC/C playoff last spring.

“It’s our goal to get back to states,” said Hillenbrand. “That was such a great experience.”

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