West Allis - For a softball program seemingly stuck at the .500 level in recent seasons, West Allis Hale set an ambitious goal for 2011 - to win the Greater Metro Conference championship.
As it turned out, the Huskies did just that, posting a 13-1 GMC record to tie powerhouse Menomonee Falls atop the league. They also finished 17-3 overall, with the only regular-season losses coming to Falls and to WIAA Division 1 state tournament entrant Oconomowoc.
"These girls had a lot of playing experience," coach Kay Nichols said. "All the starters had been in club ball and that helps. We had a nice core group coming back."
Senior pitcher Ashley Kluck added, "We had a team that was there to play the game. There was not any drama or complaining about positions or playing time; their heads were in the game. Everyone supported and picked up their teammates. There was also a mutual respect between the coaches and players which you don't find very often."
Senior shortstop Shannon Huberty continued, "I have been on varsity for four years, and we played the most as a team this season."
For all these reasons and others, Hale completed a remarkable turnaround, and in recognition of this, the Huskies are well-represented on the 2011 NOW Newspapers All-Suburban team.
Kluck is on the team at utility, while Huberty is in the infield and Nichols was a clear winner for coach of the year honors.
A great fit for both team, coach
Nichols was in just her second season at Hale after previously coaching at Milwaukee Hamilton for three years.
"I took a leave for my kids, but I wanted to get back into coaching," she said. "I saw Hale had an opening, and it was close to my home. That was it. I really had no previous connection with Hale."
This year, Nichols made a key addition to her staff, bringing on her husband Rob, who had also previously coached at Hamilton.
Kay Nichols acknowledged that while coaching certainly keeps her busy, she enjoys it.
"I like being around the players," she said. "I played the game myself in high school and college. When you're in a game, you get the adrenaline pumping and the heart going. I just have that competitive spirit."
She is more interested in developing her players as good people rather than just as good players.
"I want the girls to be respectful young women," Nichols said. "We have standards set. I hope the lessons they learn off the field are as strong as those on the field."
Hale's dual threat
Kluck put together a fine season both at the plate and on the mound, batting .522 with 19 runs batted in as well as posting a 17-2 record and minuscule 0.32 earned-run average.
She was able to put up those statistics despite the fact she had not seen significant pitching time in her previous three years on varsity.
"As a freshman, I was put at the position where they needed me most, which happened to be first base," Kluck said. "I was always willing to play wherever they needed me, whether it was first, second or third base. I also filled in at short or pitcher.
"I pitched a couple of games as a junior and went 4-2. This year, I realized I would have to pitch for the team, seeing as we did not have another one."
Not being a seasoned pitcher, she did walk 57 batters, but her fielding ability on the mound helped make up for that.
"It was like we had five infielders," she said.
Kluck's trademark was her ability to escape any jam, including bases-loaded, no-out situations.
"I would stay calm and focus on the batter," Kluck said. "I threw strikes when I had to. Also, prior to throwing a pitch, I always knew where the runners were and made sure whoever fielded the ball knew where to go with it."
Huberty a reliable, steady option
One of those fielders Kluck counted on to make the play was Huberty at shortstop. Besides being a defensive standout, she was also the team's sparkplug in the leadoff spot, hitting .480 with 10 extra-base hits, 27 runs scored and 19 driven in for Hale. She posted a solid on-base percentage of .506.
"Most leadoff hitters are fast or can bunt," Huberty said. "But I am neither of those, so my job was to get on base any way I could. I am not a power hitter, but I can get singles, and the people behind me can drive me in."
Throughout her life, coaches have seen her potential at the top of the lineup. For much of her career, she hit leadoff with the exception of one season when she batted second.
"She was an excellent shortstop and a great leadoff batter," Nichols said. "She was a team captain and a great contributor to our success."
Planning for the future
Kluck now plans to attend and play softball at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, while Huberty is headed for the University of Minnesota and plans to try out for the softball team.
Nichols is looking forward to next year's season at Hale, hoping the Huskies can continue their success.
"We will have some key players back," the coach said. "We need to fill in the pitching position, but we have a couple girls who can throw. We will be OK."
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