Hannah Haydel was a dominant winner inside the softball circle in her time at Hahnville. The same is true at the collegiate level.
The senior became the first 20-game winner at Nicholls in 18 years with a shutout victory over Southeastern last weekend and has helped push the Colonels to the verge of the Southland Conference championship.
Nicholls State is 19-4 in the Southland Conference and enters the final weekend of the regular season a half-game behind conference leader McNeese State. The Colonels will close out the regular season at home against third-place Lamar next weekend.
Nicholls hasn’t won a regular season conference title since 1996 and hasn’t qualified for the Southland Conference tournament since 2010.
“This is the best season we’ve had yet,” Haydel said. “The program keeps getting better. Our team chemistry has really been strong all year, the best it’s ever been.”
Individually, Haydel has evolved into one of the most dominant pitchers in the country. She entered the week leading the Southland in conference play in wins, ERA, strikeouts and opponent batting average. She moved up to 11th in all of the NCAA in ERA at 1.39. Her pitching has helped lift the Colonels to a team rank of eighth nationally in ERA, Nicholls’ staff sporting a collective 1.88 mark.
Haydel ranks 4th all-time at Nicholls in innings pitched (549.1), and 5th in strikeouts (350) and starts (84).
Haydel is 20-7 this season and has struck out 128 batters in 181.2 innings. She also tossed a no-hitter this season.
She attributes much of the Colonels improvement — and her own — to increased mental toughness.
“We do a lot to improve our strength and conditioning, and that’s certainly important,” Haydel said. “But softball is such a mental game. We’re finishing games strong, something we’ve struggled with in the past. We lost a lot of the closer games, but now we’re winning games 1-0, 2-1 … those are the most fun to win.”
Haydel won plenty of games, both close and not, as a Hahnville Tiger. Her run as starter with HHS in 2011 and 2012 coincided with the Tigers program achieving the rare feat of reaching three straight Class 5A championship games, including a state championship win in 2011. She was named All-State in both her junior and senior seasons.
“What set us apart on that team was that so many of us had played together since we were very young,” Haydel said. “We spent so much time working together and we climbed all the way up to that state championship. We had that special bond and togetherness built over a long time.”
At times, she and her teammates breezed through team after team — HHS put together back-to-back 30 win campaigns.
But nothing comes easy at the college level, Haydel said.
“The big difference is (in high school) you may face teams with one or two real top-notch hitters, but at this level, the whole team can really hit,” Haydel said. “You can’t take a batter off. You have to really be locked in for the entire game.”
She has the skills to combat those deep lineups. While Haydel acknowledges she doesn’t throw the hardest among her collegiate peers, her pinpoint control has enabled her to become one of Nicholls State’s most valuable players.
“I think I spin the ball really well,” Haydel said. “I can move the ball and get it exactly where I need to go.”
Now, the Colonels are in position to win the Southland Conference, something Haydel said would mean much to her and the rest of a senior class who helped built the foundation for this team from the ground up.
“We had a losing season in my freshman year,” Haydel said. “For us to be at the top of the conference , it would show a lot of growth. It’s a way for us to leave our mark here.”
The first game of the Lamar series starts Friday at 6 p.m. in Thibodaux. Nicholls will face Lamar in a doubleheader Saturday, beginning at noon.