The 2019 softball season could be special for the Hastings Raiders as they bring back nine seniors, including a majority of starters from last season that saw them go 2-2 in the section playoffs.

"The experience is going to be crucial and beneficial in leading the team," said head coach Ken Lundquist. "We're going to have a lot of experience, we'll have our starting pitching, starting catcher and starting center fielder (back) so we'll be strong up the middle."

Those seniors are Jenna Conley, Maddie Junker, Megan Mattson, MacKenzie Putnam, Syd Radke, Sarah Radke, Kayla Simacek, Ashley Skov and Anna Van Hatten.

Lundquist said that the team's strength this season will be their defense and pitching, led by Simacek in the circle.

"The goal is to utilize Kayla as much as her body will permit, but at the same time we do have two capable pitchers in junior Sarah Gathje and freshman Hailey Hoff," he said. "I feel both of those two will compete for that number two spot and either one of them is capable of filling that role."

The Raiders had some offensive struggles at times last season, but have done a lot to address that area in the offseason.

"Last year we struggled a little bit hitting, though we spent a lot of time in the offseason, the girls did, working on their hitting with different instructors and being able to add Mike Mills to our staff last year, who is the hitting guru in the state here," Lundquist said. "He's set up some plans for them that they worked on and I do look forward to see how that benefits us.

"I think the one thing that hurt us the most (last season) was that timely hit, we'd get kids on base but we just couldn't get that clutch hit to get the rally going. Again, I think with the seniors coming back it's going to be a different story this year as far as just the confidence in itself and kids wanting to be put in situations where they can get a big hit. I think they are going to thrive in those situations where last year, it's not that they were afraid of them, but maybe they didn't have the confidence that they do now."

Despite so many seniors returning, Lundquist said a couple younger players also have the chance to make an impact as well.

"I already mentioned Hailey Hoff being a ninth-grade pitcher, not only will she help with pitching but hitting and fielding. I can see her getting some at-bats, getting some opportunities to play in the field," he said. "(Freshman) Kendal Jenkins, she played up with the varsity last year in some situations and actually had a huge hit in sections for us, she had a go-ahead RBI for us against Rosemount. She'll find her mix and I wouldn't be surprised if we see her starting in the field. We also have another ninth-grader in Reanna Reinke, she'll be fighting for playing time, she'll get some at-bats, she's a lefty, she's fast, she can slap. She'll get opportunities and hopefully she takes advantage of them."

Hastings is always in the mix at the top of the Metro East Conference and Lundquist said to expect his team to be there yet again, along with perennial contenders North St. Paul and Hill-Murray, and other strong teams in Mahtomedi, Tartan and Henry Sibley. As for their section, it will be a grind as usual for the Raiders.

"Our section is loaded again, we've got some great teams in our section and I would like to consider us one of those good teams. I know with our experience that we can beat anybody, the last few years we could beat anybody," he said. "We beat Stillwater last year 2-1 and they went on to win the state championship game. We've got the players and we've got the team, and I with that experience I know it's going to help us in those critical games. We want to make the state tournament, that's our goal and we feel like we have the team to get us there."

Hastings' schedule remains mostly the same again this year, but they will play in two tournaments. The first will be the Forest Lake tournament they play in every year April 12-13, and then they have added another in Shakopee where they will play three games in one day on May 4. Lundquist said that they have never played in a tournament with three games in one day, but that most of his players compete in summer softball where it's common. Having those three games in one day also frees up some more practice time for the Raiders.

Hastings has a scrimmage in Red Wing on Thursday, March 28, and the Raiders' season opener is at Simley on Tuesday, April 2. Their home opener is against Tartan on Thursday, April 4.