Hailey Sanders doesn’t have a lot of free time. But the junior from Louisa-Muscatine wouldn’t have it any other way.
Sanders is a four-sport athlete but softball is her passion. She often goes to the local indoor facility with her father, Luke Sanders, and her younger sister and Louisa-Muscatine sophomore, Kylee Sanders, for hitting and pitching practice. When other sports are in season, they go for two hours after volleyball, basketball or tack practice.
When all her teammates returned home to celebrate last summer’s Class 2A state title, Louisa-Muscatine’s first in school history, Sanders went straight to an airport and boarded a plane to California for a tournament with her traveling team, Iowa Premier, which is based out of Des Moines.
“It’s pretty crazy,” Sanders said. “I practice in the offseason at least three times a week. I usually don’t have a lot of free time but that’s how I like it.”
Sanders’ work ethic has paid off, as the class of 2020 recruit announced her verbal commitment to play softball for the University of Northern Iowa Thursday night on Twitter.
Sanders had a 10-2 record with 103 strikeouts and a 0.90 earned run average in the circle for the Falcons a year ago. She also compiled a .340 batting average with 2 home runs and 33 RBIs.
“After my visit, I didn’t really feel like seeing another campus,” Sanders said. “All the girls were super nice when they met me. I want to go into education and that’s the school to do it at so that really stood out to me.”
Sanders originally committed to the University of Illinois-Chicago, a Division I school, last February. She remembers being given a deadline to commit or risk losing her offer to the school. So she pounced on the opportunity.
“I was really nervous,” Sanders said. “I was like ‘I don’t know what to do. What if I don’t get any offers after this?’ I didn’t want to pass up a good offer and not get one as good.”
But as time went on Sanders’ desire to play in her home state grew, so she decommitted from UIC. South Dakota State, Iowa State and Northern Iowa all showed various levels of interest in the Louisa-Muscatine standout. UNI coach Ryan Jacobs allowed Sanders to make the decision on her own timeline, which helped set the Panthers apart after feeling rushed into a decision the first time around.
“I really respected that and I thought right now was the right time,” Sanders said. “Him being such a good guy and doing that, it was like ‘wow, this is where I want to be.’”
Sanders says she will likely get the chance to hit and pitch for the Panthers, who have had winning seasons in two of the last three years. Pitching will be her main focus, though, and she’s proven herself in that regard on the biggest stage.
She pitched a complete game in a 2-1 win over Central Springs in the Class 2A state semifinals last summer. Sanders retired 17 straight batters at one point, with nine of them coming on strikeouts. Then, in the state title game, she came in as a reliever and pitched four innings and allowed zero runs to pick up the win. She showed ability at the plate, too, with a walk-off RBI-single to give the Falcons a 4-3 win in the state title game.
“I don’t think I’d be where I am now if it wasn’t for Iowa Premier and (coach) Greg (Dickel),” Sanders said. She switched to the Iowa Premier program two years ago.
“He (Greg) knows so many college coaches so being on his team really benefited me. The travel has really benefited me and I think that’s been the key in this whole thing.”
She knows there’s still work to be done in order to make the impact she wants at UNI.
“I don’t want to just be another player,” Sanders said. “I want to do really well up there and really help UNI. They have high hopes for me and I want to be able to meet those standards.”
In the meantime, she will turn into a recruiter for the Panthers in an effort to convince her sister Kylee that UNI is the place for her.
“That’s what I’m hoping for,” Hailey said. “I know they really like my sister a lot but there are a lot of other schools interested in her.
“I think she’d like it up there and it’d be pretty cool to play with my sister in college.”