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New Life Academy softball: Johnson, Hohol help Eagles go 2-0 at Rockford tourney

Nicole Johnson is greeted at home plate by her teammates after hitting a home run. Johnson had two homers in two games last week.

Last Saturday, the New Life Academy softball team made hay while the sun shined.

The Eagles finally got to play outside and made the most of it by picking up a nice early season tournament win by defeating Class AAA school North Branch 3-1 and Class AA school Zimmerman 8-1.

The wins improved New Life's record to 3-2 on the year.

This year, New Life Academy - which won four Class A state championships in a row between 2008 and 2011 - is hoping to reach its eight-straight state tournament, which would tie Winona Cotter for the most consecutive state tournament appearances in state history.

The wins in Rockford showed New Life should be a team to watch this spring.

In the win over North Branch, sophomore pitcher Valerie Hohol paced the Eagles both at the plate and on the mound. Hohol was 3-for-3 with three singles and pitched a complete game six-hitter, seeming to be in command of the game the entire way.

"Despite us only providing three runs, the game never really seemed in doubt as North Branch couldn't ever get much started offensively the way Val was pitching," NLA head coach Mick Ramey said. "Her pitching and our solid defense never let them string anything together to muster a rally."

The game started off right for New Life in the top of the first inning.

NLA junior leadoff hitter Chloe Westlund smacked her first career homerun to deep center. Westlund's shot was immediately followed up with a double by junior Amanda Heidmann and a single from sophomore Hohol - giving the Eagles a nice 2-0 lead to start the game. After North Branch manufactured a run in the second inning, the only other scoring of the game came in the fourth inning when NLA senior Nicole Johnson's hit a solo homerun.

"It's been some time since we've had multiple home runs hit in the same game," Ramey said. "But one nice thing about working inside a gym for a month due to weather is we've been able to spend a lot more time trying to improve swings with hitting drills and video work than in past years. We've had a number of girls come out early this season hitting significantly better and harder than they did last year. Maybe the late spring will end up being a blessing in disguise in some ways this year because of that."

In the second game, the Eagles' bats were alive up and down the batting order.

The Eagles jumped all over the Zimmerman pitchers to cruise to victory. Johnson again homered for her second round-tripper of the day, and RBI's were generated by six different Eagles hitters.

"I was very proud to see so many of our girls have big hits and driving in runs" said NLA assistant coach Mark Hohol. "We expect significant production at the plate out of all 9 spots in the lineup this year and we got it against Zimmerman. And having (Nicole) Johnson showing her power so early in the season was really nice to see as well."

Multiple hit games were delivered by Johnson (2-for-4, with 2 RBI), sophomore Malorie Giere (3-for-4, RBI) and Hohol (2-for-4). In addition, Heidmann and Westlund each had two RBI and sophomores Syd Steele and Stacia Butwin had one RBI each.

"Steele has delivered in the clutch very nicely a couple of times already this year with two-out RBI hits, and seems to have found a new groove at the plate so far," Ramey said. "We expect that she will make some noise offensively this year and raise havoc on the base paths with her speed - and we've started to see that early this year from her."

Val Hohol again was strong in the second game pitching a complete game four-hitter and never let Zimmerman get any momentum started at the plate.

NLA took on PACT on Tuesday, after the Bulletin went to print. Next, the Eagles welcome West Lutheran to Bielenberg on Wednesday before hosting Bethany Academy on Thursday and Legacy Christian Academy on Friday.

"We've had a nice start to the season with our two early tournaments against bigger schools, and feel like we're ready now to challenge for another conference title," Ramey said. "We are excited to start facing our conference rivals now this week and feel like we've prepared ourselves well with a difficult non-conference schedule."