4/7/2012 10:49:00 PM Yavapai outfielder Heimburg's calming presence, talent keeping defending champs on even keel
Matt Hinshaw/The Daily Courier
Yavapai College’s Brandi Heimburg (batting) hits a pitch by Central Arizona’s Jasmine Ioane (20) Saturday afternoon in Prescott. The Roughriders swept Central, 3-2 and 4-2, and are ranked No. 3 in the latest softball poll.
PRESCOTT - Immersed in the pressure cooker of great expectations that often follows defending national champions, Yavapai College freshman outfielder Brandi Heimburg seems to take it all in stride.
Whether she's out in the field or at the dish, Heimburg's cheerful demeanor, talent and skills have been a boon to the Roughriders in 2012.
Before sweeping a conference doubleheader against Central Arizona Saturday afternoon at home, 3-2 and 4-2, No. 3 nationally ranked Yavapai held a three-game lead over Pima for first place in the Arizona Conference's Division I standings as the campaign winds down.
And the coach-able Heimburg's team-leading .424 average (59 for 139) to go along with 28 RBIs and 46 runs through Friday - whether from the Nos. 1, 2 or 3 holes in the lineup - pace an offense that's gaining steam for the stretch run.
"I think I'm just getting more comfortable with the team," the diminutive Heimburg said of her recent success from practice Friday. "It always takes me a while when I first get on a new team to be myself. But the girls make me feel comfortable enough to where if I have a bad at-bat, I feel bad but I know they're going to have my back either way."
The clutch hitting of Heimburg, a Phoenix Arcadia High product, has proved to be a considerable spark for YC in maintaining its edge in conference play. She's a tough out who can slap, bunt, hit away for power, and steal bases. But there's clearly another factor in this equation.
"She's a big asset to this team because of her personality - she's so nice to everybody," freshman outfielder Alma Cortez, typically the leadoff hitter for Yavapai who had a .344 average (51 for 150) through Friday, said of Heimburg. "She's everyone's best friend. Seeing her do amazing things just picks you up and makes you want to do better."
Going into Saturday, the National Junior College Athletic Association defending national champion and ACCAC titlist Roughriders' record stood at 42-7 overall and 30-4 in league action. After this weekend, YC has just eight games - including five at home and three on the road - remaining on its schedule before the playoffs begin May 4.
"For us to sweep good teams, it mostly comes down to communication," Cortez said. "We have the talent, but we just need to trust each other on things and stick together all the time."
With April in full swing, it appears as though Yavapai has the upper hand to claim yet another conference crown. Four of the Roughriders' final six opponents carry sub-.500 records. South Mountain and Pima are the lone foes to own winning marks, and YC will face both on the road in single games rather than twin bills on April 17 and 24, respectively.
"Now that it's April, we want to start playing our best ball before regionals arrive," said Yavapai's No. 2 starting pitcher, Amelia Willadsen. "We feel like we're getting there, though."
If the Roughriders stay healthy and loose, they possess the talent on the pitching slab behind All-American ace Estela Pinon (13-2 record, 1.51 ERA through Friday) and Willadsen (17-4, 2.70 ERA), as well as at the dish (.356 team batting average) to contend once more for all the marbles.
Speaking of health, over the past week or so, several Roughriders have been battling a flu-like illness. Nonetheless, before Saturday's contests, Yavapai had won eight of its last nine, with the lone hiccup coming versus D-I third-place Eastern Arizona April 3 at Bill Vallely Field.
"It was kind of like a wake-up call," Willadsen said of the setback to Eastern. "We just have to believe in ourselves, work hard and do our best."
Yavapai still has a difficult road ahead if it plans to win another conference title, but the coaching staff and the players have kept everything in perspective.
"It's definitely nice to be in first place, but just like with Major League Baseball, it's also nice to kind of go on a hot streak," Roughriders coach Lisa Parks said. "And that's what we're trying to do, and have that mindset to not get complacent and put it in cruise control."
Along with several of her teammates, Heimburg has worked to keep the mood light at practices and in the dugout during games to keep players' stamina high. The Roughriders have come to respect Heimburg for her friendly nature and confidence.
"One of the big things we need to work on is staying up and positive," Heimburg said. "Obviously we need to win, but also our attitudes are a huge thing that makes us either win or lose games. If we're focused and don't get down on ourselves when we make a mistake, that's huge. And a lot of the girls are good about that."