LETTS, Iowa – Louisa-Muscatine softball coach Bryan Butler always knew the talent Hailey Sanders possessed. With a lights-out start to the season, it didn't take long for others to notice.
“A friend of mine I respect was watching one of her games early on,” Butler recalls. “He comes up to me after the game and said, ‘Bryan, she’s got to be one of the best pitchers in the state.’”
The Falcons’ ace proved that she was worthy of that label time and time again in a dominant junior season. She accumulated a 21-1 record as a starter in the circle with 283 strikeouts -- only 18 teams in the state had more strikeouts -- in 143 innings pitched, all of which more than doubled her totals in those same categories as a sophomore.
Butler has coached against Sanders in club softball. He prefers being in the friendly dugout when she’s pitching.
“Coaching against her in club ball and it’s like ‘freaking Hailey is pitching again,’” Butler said with a laugh. “We’re really blessed to have a pitcher of her caliber. There are a lot of coaches that would love to change spots with me."
Sanders posted a 0.83 earned run average and a .109 opponent batting average to help lead Louisa-Muscatine (35-5) to a runner-up finish in Class 3A despite pitching with a stress fracture in her fibula. In the days leading up to the season, Sanders admitted she was ready to prove she could be a workhorse and win against tough competition.
The junior faced ten teams in the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union’s final rankings, with three of those coming against teams ranked No. 1. She went 9-1 with 104 strikeouts and surrendered just 14 earned runs.
She also improved in nearly every hitting statistic, compiling a .437 batting average, .555 slugging percentage, 14 doubles and 28 RBIs. She credits her improvement to patience at the plate and in-season hitting lessons with former Iowa softball coach Gayle Blevins.
“I had an amazing season,” Sanders said. “It means a lot to me and feels good knowing all the hard work and hours of practice have finally paid off.”
This season, Sanders said, surpassed even her expectations. Butler, on the other hand, wasn’t surprised to see her turn into the ace L-M needed after Isabelle True transferred to West Liberty in May.
“When Isabelle (True) left Hailey knew she was going to be the one,” Butler said. “I think she felt this was her opportunity to show what she was capable of.”
If there was any doubt she was capable, that ended when Sanders struck out 12 and allowed one earned run to then-defending Class 5A state champion Pleasant Valley in the season’s opening week.
Sanders didn’t surrender a run in her next eight starts while Louisa-Muscatine racked up wins. Butler likened his ace to former Benton Community standout Amber Fiser, who pitches for Minnesota.
“The feeling I have with her as a coach is the same as I did with Amber,” Butler said. “I knew if we could generate a couple runs (Sanders) is not going to give up more than a couple for the most part.”
The junior struck out 13.9 batters per seven innings, up from 10.4 as a sophomore. Her 53% strikeout percentage was up from 38%, and she recorded her 500th career strikeout against Mediapolis.
Sanders, who has pitched since elementary school, has a variety of pitches in her strikeout arsenal: A curveball, screwball and riseball.
“Ever since I was little and my dad worked with me I would always throw on the outside or inside corner,” Sanders said. “I never throw it down the middle; it’s just how I’ve been taught. I’m always confident my pitch is going to be a strike.
“If (batters) aren’t familiar with me, they’re probably going to watch the first strike no matter what. I’ll throw an outside fastball on the corner. Then I’ll start going curveball, screwball and up (high).”
However, it wasn’t always easy for Sanders. She suffered a stress fracture in her plant leg fibula in early-June at offseason volleyball workouts. She first noticed the pain in a June 7 start against Durant, her seventh start of the season. She didn’t tell anybody – coaches or parents – until the pain worsened two weeks later.
“I had to try to keep as much pressure off it as possible,” Sanders said. “As soon as I’d plant I’d almost try to switch feet, just get off of that foot as quickly as I could because it was painful.”
Still, once she got the OK from doctors to continue pitching, there was no doubt in her mind she had to tough it out.
“I knew if they said I could still pitch I was going to tough it out,” Sanders said. “I wanted to be there for my team.”
The junior struck out 44 batters and didn’t allow a run in three regional contests, two of which ended in 1-0 wins for the Falcons. It was the ultimate test of Sanders’ mental toughness and physical skill.
She passed with flying colors.
“I handled a lot of pressure and I’m really proud of that,” Sanders said. “To not give up a run and have double-digit strikeouts every game was a personal goal.
“That showed how good of a pitcher I am.”
Sanders’ raw numbers weren’t as daunting at the state tournament, but Butler still felt the junior pitched well in Fort Dodge, especially when she held West Liberty in check in a 10-2 semifinal win. The Comets scored at least seven runs in their other five postseason games.
Though Sanders is proud of the individual season she had, the L-M standout takes the most pride in the Falcons' team success. Led by a barrage of strikeouts from the Northern Iowa recruit, Louisa-Muscatine proved to be one of the state’s best teams regardless of class in a runner-up finish.
“We had a great season,” Sanders said. “One of the best we’ve had all-around. I’m proud of what we did in all of the situations that were thrown at us.”