By Ray Hamill — What this year’s Big 5 senior softball class might lack in quantity, it has more than made up for in quality.
The 2022 class is so small in numbers, in fact, it wouldn’t even make up a full team, with just eight players set to graduate in the coming weeks.
All but one of those players, however, have either committed to play at the collegiate level or are still keeping their options open, which is an indication of how talented this group is.
It’s also a tight-knit class that has developed a close friendship while playing together almost as much as against each other over the years.
“All of these seniors have played together for the (Mad River) MIST, starting when they were 12,” said Del Norte head coach Jackie Hueberger, whose daughter Josephine is the only Warriors senior this year. “So they have a great connection and they know each other well. They have a great friendship over the years.”
In addition to Josephine Heuberger, the 2022 Big 5 class includes Eureka’s McKenna Beach and Payton Goodman, Fortuna’s Kelsie Hall and Hannah Milhorn, McKinleyville’s Raina Ausburn and Allie Egbert and Arcata’s Corrina Cunningham.
The fact that seven of the eight seniors could end up playing college ball is a testament to the positive steps the sport has taken here on the North Coast in recent years, which can at least be partially attributed to the success and growth of the MIST and Humboldt Fastpitch Softball.
And all of these seniors have played a key role for their respective high school teams, while remaining committed to the game and persevering through a pandemic that saw many of their former teammates opt out.
Beach, who will play at Cal Poly Humboldt next year, has been a rock behind the plate for the Big 5 champion Loggers, who have lost just once all season, and she has played a pivotal leadership role along with Goodman.
“They’ve brought a lot of leadership,” Eureka head coach Robin Johnson said of her two seniors. “They know how to get the job done. They play a lot of sports and they know what they need to do. And they’re very supportive of all the girls.”
Goodman, the team’s starting second baseman, will be remembered as one of the most successful Loggers student athletes ever, having won two NCS titles in soccer, two Dick Niclai championships in basketball and league titles in three different sports.
Heuberger also has played a key leadership role on a young Warriors roster, and like Beach she will take her game to the collegiate level, although she’s keeping her options open for now.
In addition to her obvious talents, the four-year varsity standout is one of the most experienced players on the North Coast, having played several years of travel ball in Utah and California.
According to her coach and mother, one of the things that makes her special is her experience and knowledge of the game.
“She has a very good softball IQ,” Jackie Heuberger said. “And her versatility. She can play anywhere.”
Egbert and Ausburn, meanwhile, have the Panthers poised to make some noise in the playoffs before they close out their high school careers.
“They are our No. 1 and 2 pitchers, so obviously they are huge key players for the team,” McKinleyville head coach Shanna McCracken said.
Ausburn has been a force in the circle for the Panthers, who are the top-ranked Division-IV team in the NCS and expected to compete for a section title this spring.
And much of the team’s success this year is down to the two seniors and the confidence they exude.
“With Raina, the word I’ll use is swagger,” McCracken said with a chuckle. “I feel she carries herself with a little bit of ‘I’m going to go do this.’ She has that demeanor about her, especially when she’s in the circle. And it’s contagious. The other girls feed off that.”
Egbert, meanwhile, displayed her toughness and dedication when she made a spectacular play as a junior while running into the outfield fence.
“Coaches joke that they want someone who will run through a wall for you, and she literally will,” McCracken said. “She’s very dedicated to the sport, to doing her best.
“I love both of their competitiveness and drive.”
Ausburn will continue her playing career at Mendocino College next year, while Egbert will play at College of the Redwoods.
Hall and Milhorn also have been good leaders on a Fortuna team that is one of the youngest in the Big 5.
Hall is a four-year varsity player and has been a “stalwart at first base” the past two seasons, according to Fortuna head coach Eric Helms.
“She has been our cleanup hitter all year long,” Helms said. “An inspirational and vocal leader of this team.”
Milhorn, meanwhile, has worked hard to get back to the top of her game after not playing during the pandemic shortened 2021 season.
“She came out her senior year and has worked hard to regain her form,” Helms said, adding that she “has been a pleasure to coach.”
Hall and Milhorn are keeping their collegiate options open for now, but both could end up playing at CR, according to their coach.
Cunningham, meanwhile, has also provided some much-needed leadership on a young Arcata roster, anchoring the defense at shortstop and also seeing time in the circle.
“She has the innate ability to rally people around her, and she easily gained my trust,” first-year Arcata head coach Steve Sarchett said. “She gained the trust of her team. Corrina is a kind and solid young lady who adapted quickly to my coaching style and picked up a system she was quite accustomed to.
“I know she is well prepared to take on any challenge. I will miss her on our field and in our dugout.”
Cunningham will play at Feather River College next year while studying forestry.