By: Jeff Strange

Coming off a highly successful 2023 campaign that included over 100 wins and nine 1st place finishes, the Wisconsin Lightning 2028/2029 squad coached by Allison Eichholz has hit the ground running early on for the 2024 season.

Traveling to Newberry, Florida in early March for the PGF Show Me The Money tournament, the WI Lightning were tested early on.

“We had one game that we lost on ground ball errors,” said Eichholz. “The turf was different and we simply struggled with routine ground balls. Rachel Dahl was on the mound with stellar composure. She did her job well! After that game, we found an open field and conquered the challenges from the different turf. They never looked back and came home as champions from the PGF Show Me The Money tournament! There is always a chance to learn and grow in the game of softball and life.”

From there, Eichholz’s squad traveled to Burlington, IA to compete in the PG Shamrock Showdown event. Once again, the Wisconsin Lightning 2028/2029 were tested but battled throughout the event.

“We had some very big team wins in our last PG tournament in Burlington,” said Eichholz. “In one game, we were down 0-3 and made a pitching change. Meanwhile, the girls kept their composure, and kept chipping away. We ended up with bases loaded and Leia Baran up to bat; she hit a ground rule double to tie up the game. Rachel Dahl came up next and drove in the winning run. They never gave up!”

Having played their way into the title game in the dome hosting the event, the Lightning saved their best for last as they brought home the championship.

“In the championship game, Leona Eichholz threw a no-hitter with 20 strikeouts and reached a new in-game personal record for her pitching velocity reaching 65 m.p.h.,” said Eichholz. “After two innings of international tie breaker, Sophia Abundiz crushed a line drive to left field to seal the victory for the entire tournament. The team and fans went wild – it gave me goosebumps!”

The Wisconsin Lightning 2028/2029 are traveling to St. Louis, MO to compete in the Top Gun Events Cardinal Invite this weekend. We caught up with coach Eichholz to get insight into her outlook for the remainder of the 2024 season:

Can you give some background information on your coaching staff and coaching styles? 

“I have an Elementary Education background and have coached and ran programs from t-ball, soccer, and to the USA All-American team in 2022 and 2023. My coaching style is firm but loving. You have to have the “classroom management” established from the beginning of the season. The players need to know that there are expectations for everyone to put the work in at practice and also outside of practice. They also need to know that this is a game of failure and our team is a safe place to fail. You cannot expect to grow and learn, if you do not fail.

Our highly motivational trainer, Bez Hidri with Hidri Sports Fitness, comes in to guide and inspire the girls to reach new goals. He’s amazing!

We also place a lot of emphasis on Mudita. They celebrate each other’s victories like they are their own. It’s a special group!”

Does your team face any challenges with schedules (drawing athletes from multiple states, perhaps)? If yes, how do you manage that?

“We generally draw players from Wisconsin and Illinois. Everyone on our team is pretty dedicated to the team and the path that they are on. It’s a special group. The majority of the team played a second sport at some point in the season thus far. It was a little challenging, but it is also good for them to work different muscles and get the social aspect of playing with their school friends in junior high.”

What are your primary goals and objectives for your team?

“My primary goal for this team is to give them a safe place to grow, learn, and fail. They are our future! They self-evaluate after every tournament. The girls document what they did well, what they’d like to improve on, and also record what their teammates did well. There are life lessons with every up and down that they come across.”

In your opinion, what traits make your organization unique?

“Wisconsin Lightning is very much a family atmosphere. We practice 3 days a week and spend a lot of time together on and off the field. Everyone does their best to attend practices. If a player is playing a second sport and cannot attend their regular scheduled practice, another coach will always welcome them into their practice. We are also very fortunate to have a great relationship with our high school and college players. Many of them come into our practices, give them lessons, and take the time to listen and guide our players outside of practice.”

Can you give some analysis/perspective on your team for 2024?

“This is a hungry team fueled by Mudita. They’ve had tremendous physical and mental growth in the first half of the season. They will fight and support each other in every pitch of every game. They’re already a special group. The continued physical and mental growth that is ahead of them will take them very far in life and in the game of softball.

We feel that we have the depth to keep us going deep into many championship wins. Every player on this team can play multiple positions. They all know that every position is important and have a hunger to perfect their skills to master each one. They’re instinctively in-tune with each other and move as one.

  • For offense, we have a deep pool of talent:
    • Ella Anderson and Riley Barda are insane triple threats. Their base running will test the best catchers around.
    • McKynna Szymandera, Leona Eichholz, Rachel Dahl and Hailey Campos are power hitters who can put one over and also lay down a bunt.
    • Leia Baran and Sophia Abundiz have been some of the best clutch hitters around.
    • Sabrina Wiedman and Emma Bottcher are true team players who will always do whatever is needed to get the job done.
  • In the circle we are very strong as well:
    • Leona Eichholz is a mental and physical beast! Nothing rattles her on the mound. She finished her 12U season just shy of 600 K’s and is already well over 300 for this 13U season.
    • Rachel Dahl has grown leaps and bounds with her mental game and mound presence. She can make her opponents look foolish with her spin and movement.
    • Sophia Abundiz has dug deep and really come through when we needed her in the circle and at the plate. She is a true team player on several levels!
  • Both of our catchers take their role as being the boss of the field very seriously. They work tirelessly perfecting their framing, blocking, and lethal throwdowns.
    • Libby Kreil has a gun that will halt the fastest base runner.
    • Leia Baran is a quick jackrabbit who can block the toughest drop ball.
  • Our infield typically consists of this strong group:
    • Riley Barda, Leia Baran Sophia Abundiz, Emma Bottcher, McKynna Szymandera and Leona Eichholz all play a quick and solid defense that can shut down the filthiest bunt and smother the hardest hit ball to make the quick and textbook collection of outs. They’re always talking and moving to stay engaged during every pitch.
  • Our outfield is very strong as well, consisting of this group:
    • Ella Anderson, Sabrina Wiedman, Hailey Campos, Rachel Dahl and Libby Kreil are like gazelles in the outfield. There is always 110% effort and knowledge of where the next play is.

What are your short-term goals for your team?

“My short-term goals are for the team to stay hungry and humble.”

What are your long-term goals for your team?

“My long-term goals for this team is to see each and every one of them play in college. When their cleats have been left on the dirt for the last time and they’re living their best adult lives, I hope that I am still a part of all of their lives.”

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