PANTHER OF THE WEEK: Dirner helping Panther softball team stay red hot

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By Keith Sparks

The Panther softball team is red hot, having scored double-digit runs in six of their last seven games on their way to a district championship behind a perfect 10-0 district record.

After struggling a bit against 5A and 6A competition in the beginning of the season, the Panther bats have caught fire. Second baseman Ashton Dirner has been one of the offensive catalysts.

Dirner, who went 7-11 at the plate with six RBIs, five base hits, one double, and a home run over four games between March 29 and April 9, has been a huge part of the Panther offense at the three-hole. According to Dirner, the Panthers’ hot streak at the plate has a lot to do with their improved communication.

“Basically, we’re trying to stay up with our communication, talking to each other the whole time,” Dirner said. “We’re trying to keep each other up, and we’re also communicating how the pitcher is, what she’s going to throw, and I think we’re getting used to the pitchers.”

After facing 5A and 6A competition in the preseason, district play at the 4A level took some adjusting. Dirner said the coaching staff has done a great job mixing up the pitching in practice, allowing them to get different looks at different types of pitches, particularly the slower ones they see in district play.

“I think it’s because we’ve been practicing with different pitchers,” Dirner said. “The way we’ve been practicing, we’ve been learning how to manage to stay on the ball. It’s definitely harder, but we practice it a lot in practice. That’s basically what we do most days is just the easy front toss. We just have to wait on it and keep our timing down.”

One of the issues early in district play, according to Head Coach Kristen Brewer, was that each batter seemed to be swinging for the fences. Now, the Panthers have perfected the art of the base hit, simply working on making contact and moving base runners into scoring position, which Dirner said they’re doing for each other.

“Coach Brewer always just tells us to aim for a base hit, because if we get a base hit, we’re moving our teammate around,” Dirner said. “That’s basically what we’re trying to do is just get everyone around, doing it for our teammates.”

The Panthers have also been incredible defensively, having given up only one run over their last seven games. Brewer has often talked about how this year’s team has come up with more double plays than she’s seen in years, and at second base, Dirner has played a big part in that, although she gave most of the credit to her pitchers and shortstop. Through practicing the execution of double plays over and over again, Dirner said those situations are almost like slow-motion during games.

“I feel like that’s on the pitchers, too, like how they place their pitches,” Dirner said. “Kinsey (Kuhlmann), our shortstop, is really good at getting the ball out quick, and we practice that, so in the game, it kind of slows down for us. I don’t really know how to explain it, but it works.

“I think it’s important in building our confidence,” Dirner said. “Because we want to go really far this year, I feel like this streak is going to help us as a jump-start for a deep playoff run. It’s going to build up more and more.”

Although the Panthers have proven they can destroy slower pitchers, the competition will be much stiffer come playoff time. With their first-round matchup on the horizon, Dirner said they’ve spent plenty of time working on hitting faster pitches, as well.

“We have these pitching machines that we use, so we can go really fast in the cages,” Dirner said. “We also do some faster front toss with Coach Brewer pitching to us. She’ll throw different pitches, she’ll throw some changeups in there to trick us, which keeps us on our toes.”

Come playoff time, Dirner and the number five state-ranked Panthers will be ready for anything that’s thrown at them, quite literally.

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