Hillcrest softball players gear up for spring season under new head coachFeb 03, 2022 03:29PM ● By Julie Slama
Hillcrest senior pitcher Maddie Sluga, seen here in April 2021, is expected to help lead the Huskies in their new region, 5A region 7. (Julie Slama/City Journals)
By Julie Slama | [email protected]
When Hillcrest High softball players hung up their bats and gloves at the end of last season, their only winning season in the last dozen years with a 12-9 record, little did they realize their head coach Ashley Anjewierden wasn’t returning.
Anjewierden resigned this past fall to devote her time and energy to teaching her students at Mt. Jordan Middle School and providing them the support they need academically and emotionally during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’ll miss my athletes, but I will always be their greatest supporter,” she said.
After one year as head coach and five as assistant coach, Anjewierden turned the team over to her assistant, Anthony Ricci.
“Coach Ricci has a lot of knowledge about softball. He’s a great guy with a great heart for the game,” she said.
Ricci paid the compliment back: “I thought Ashley did an awesome job last year and she allowed me to help with a lot of feedback. I learned from her on how to coach a high school team. As the assistant, coming into this role, the girls, they know me, and they know what type of coach I am. As a head coach, it’s my job to build the trust in the student-athletes. When I make bad decisions, I’ll own up to it, and if they make a mistake, I expect they’ll own up to it and we move to the next play. It’s not something that we concentrate on. There’s a column for errors for a reason. Everybody makes them; it’s going to happen. It’s what we do after that error that makes us successful.”
Ricci, who is a behavioral health assistant at Diamond Ridge Youth Academy, said he already has held open gyms and Saturday softball clinics for the Hillcrest players.
“We’re getting in the reps and drills that they need to just to get better,” he said. “I am a big proponent of basic drills and working in progression. So, we work a lot on defense, we work a lot of bucket drills where I’m sitting on a bucket rolling balls and we’ll do down the middle backhand, forehand, with bare hands then with a black glove then we will progress using our regular gloves then to making the throw. Then, we’ll hit to them and make the throw and we can do the same thing in the outfield where we do drop step angles and we’ll do drop step left, drop step right, straight drop steps. Then we will bring them together and run scenarios, so we know how many outs, where’s our runners, what plays are going to be successful for us if the balls are hit in certain situations. We’re preparing the student-athletes to be pitch ready.”
It’s something that the Huskies practiced last year.
“Last year, Hillcrest had its best showing as far as ranking at the end of the season, so I’d like to continue that. We didn’t lose very many starters for varsity so we’re still able to compete at that level,” he said of the five players who graduated and six current seniors he expects on the team.
Hillcrest had four girls played club ball, and Ricci coaches the Utah Freaks club softball team, so he is looking forward to those returnees sharing their experiences and perspectives with their teammates, some returning for another season and some who may be new to the sport.
“We take students that are at the school regardless if they’ve never thrown a ball or if they’ve played for five years. We coach them to be able to compete at a high school level,” he said. “A lot of our students are multi-sport athletes and so they recruit their friends. I think my coaching style—I try to build them up and focus on the good things, focus on the strong things, and then we can identify and work on weaknesses as a team—is being calm and positive and that results in athletes saying, he’s a pretty cool coach. We have some new athletes who are coming to our open gyms who are very athletic, and they’ll catch on quickly. I want the best out of each student-athlete and want to build those relationships, having conversations that may not be softball related, but that are going to let them know I care about them, their schooling and what is going on and if they’re struggling, we’ll work to figure it out. Then, with that trust, they’re willing to give as much as they can on the softball field.”
Senior Amanda Desjardins, who played outfield on the JV squad last year, said coach Ricci helped her out in her first year playing softball.
“He helped me truly understand the game when I didn’t have a clue what was going on,” she said. “He’s also energetic and wants to see everyone succeed.”
Tryouts for the team are held Feb. 28, with the first game scheduled for March 7 against Corner Canyon High at nearby Union Park since the softball field at the school has yet to be installed. The team has a tournament scheduled in mid-March in St. George, returning a day before playing their first region game in Tooele on March 22.
This season, Ricci is OK with being a part of the new 5A region 7 that stretches from Tooele to Vernal.
“I’m focused on wanting to know that my girls are competing at the highest level that they can compete at—that I’m getting the best athlete out of them. At the end of the day, runs don’t matter if I have all my athlete give 100% on the field,” he said. “I feel like these bus rides, it’s the time that student-athletes get to bond and enjoy each other outside of softball. Once they’re on the field, we’re ready to play and focus only on softball, but it’s off the field when memories are made and that’s what they’ll remember—a funny joke on the bus or whatever. It’s those relationships and memories that they’ll remember, not the score of the last game.”