By GREG MENGELT
> SOUTHERN INDIANA —
Unlike the area’s other conferences, Hoosier Hills Conference softball games don’t matter until next week’s conference tournament.
Floyd Central (16-3) is unbeaten against HHC opponents, but beginning Monday, the Highlanders will have to do it all again.
Floyd goes to Bedford to open the tournament in a rematch of last year’s sectional championship game, which the Highlanders won 3-2 in eight innings.
“Obviously, it’s the first major goal,” first-year Highlander manager Scott Castleberry said of repeating as HHC champions. “It’s the first opportunity to make a statement.”
Six of the HHC teams will also make up the Jeffersonville Sectional field, which begins the third week in May. The bottom half of the HHC bracket features four Jeff Sectional opponents, making for great preparation for the Highlanders’ ultimate goal.
“The way the [HHC] is set up is great,” Castleberry said. “A lot of the same teams are involved [in the sectional]. We’re approaching it very seriously. Our practices have been a lot more intense this week. The players realize that this isn’t just for conference, but we want to continue to progress toward the sectional.”
Bedford doesn’t field a team nearly as dangerous as last year’s that pushed the Highlanders to the brink in the sectional. However, Castleberry knows that the Stars can’t be taken lightly.
The Highlanders’ and Stars’ regular-season matchup was postponed due to rain. Both teams also played in the Bedford North Lawrence Tournament but avoided each other during that weekend.
“I’ve heard they may be down a little bit, but from what I’ve heard and from keeping up with them, I think they’ve done a good job of continuing to improve,” Castleberry said. “I think they’ll be ready to play us Monday night.”
The way the brackets are set up, Floyd will play at Jennings County or at New Albany on Wednesday. The winners will face each other, as will the losers.
Floyd beat Jennings County 4-2 on April 2 and New Albany 2-1 on April 9.
“When I looked at the brackets, we knew we had to play an improved Bedford North Lawrence team, then New Albany and Jennings County after that,” Castleberry recalled. “We realized real quick that we were in the tougher portion of the bracket. If we’re able to win, that’s gong to be a very tough [second-round] game.”
New Albany caoch Steve Belden is hoping to get another shot at the rival Highlanders, but the Bulldogs will have to get by a Panther team that has given them all kinds of trouble over the past few years. Jennings beat the 15-4 Bulldogs 6-3 on April 25.
“Jennings is going to be a tough opponent,” Belden said. “We know what we have to do to win the game, but it’s going to be a battle.”
In the top half of the bracket, Jeffersonville faces Madison in Monday’s opening round. The heavily-favored Red Devils would then host either Seymour or Columbus East in the second round.
Jeff (10-7) won at Seymour on April 6 and beat Madison 8-0 on Thursday.
“I think our kids are on an upswing,” Jeff coach Jodi Bradley said. “We still have a pretty good chance any given night. On any given night, it could be anybody [in the HHC].”