BY ZACK KLEMME
THE DAILY INDEPENDENT
If being named the 2016-17 Tony Curnutte Female Sportsman of the Year is the last act of Sara Hieneman’s competitive athletic career, she can live with that.
In fact, helping others live better is why the 2017 Russell graduate plans to set aside the ball and bat — for a full-time focus studying pre-medicine at the University of Kentucky.
“It was definitely not easy. I remember being very upset the night I called a college coach and told him I wasn’t gonna play,” Hieneman said. “But I’m ready for the next step and to jump into premedicine, which is gonna be rigorous.”
Rigorous would also have described Hieneman’s high school career. On both the softball field and the volleyball court, her prodigious power led to high hitting marks and a long list of state, area, region and school awards. In the classroom, Hieneman posted a 4.621 gradepoint average on a 4.0 scale to become co-valedictorian of her class.
“Sara has done a lot of little things over the last few years to really put herself in a great situation both academically and athletically,” said Dave Wheeler, Russell’s softball coach the last three seasons who recently accepted the same position at Boyd County. “When you’re a scholarathlete, you have to do a lot of juggling. She’s made a lot of sacrifices in her life to accomplish both goals.”
That somehow still left time for Hieneman to work as a junior volunteer at Our Lady of Bellefonte Hospital in wound care, radiology, accounting, physical therapy and administration.
There, she honed an interest in medicine, particularly radiology, orthopedics and surgery. Since graduation, she’s spent time shadowing Dr. Joseph R. Leith, an orthopedic surgeon, with plans to spend time with a radiologist as well.
That’s in preparation to major in agricultural and medical biotechnology at UK’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment.
“It is a mouthful, so I just say ‘pre-med,’” Hieneman said, grinning.
Hieneman has also worked with the youth group at First Baptist Church in Russell, the Ashland Alliance youth leadership program, River Cities Harvest and The Neighborhood, which work to serve the underprivileged in the Ashland area, and various school clubs.
Can’t sleep on Sara
The only major consequence?
“I think the biggest sacrifice is sleep,” Hieneman said, laughing, “just because it’s hard to go to school for seven, eight hours a day and then play ball ’til late that night and still have time to make grades. A lot of friend sacrifices, too, going out with your friends and stuff like that.”
Opposing volleyball and softball coaches likely lost sleep, too, trying to figure out how to contain Hieneman.
“She definitely was somebody who you got a little bit antsy (about) when she was in the box,” Ashland softball coach Scott Ingram said. “You knew what she could do.”
Darrell Adkins coached Hieneman on the Russell volleyball team in her eighth-grade and freshman seasons. He is now at Greenup County and led the Lady Musketeers against Hieneman and the Lady Devils three times last fall.
“I already knew who she was, and I knew she was going to hug me, win or lose,” Adkins said. “I also knew how hard it was to game-plan against her.”
First (and final) impressions
Hieneman earned a starting slot on both the Lady Devils’ varsity softball and volleyball teams as an eighth-grader. Russell found team success in each of those seasons.
The Lady Devils won the 2012 16th Region Tournament in volleyball, and that spring, Hieneman’s first career home run was a walk-off three-run long ball to beat Menifee County in the region softball tournament quarterfinals. Russell finished as region runner-up.
Hieneman went on to become Russell’s record holder in runs batted in and home runs for both her career and a single season. As a senior, she went deep 13 times and drove in 69 runs. That gave her 35 round-trippers (third in 16th Region fast-pitch softball history) and 183 RBIs for her career.
As a senior, Hieneman was bestowed with Class 2A first-team All-State honors, was recognized by the Kentucky Softball Coaches Association as one of the top 30 seniors in the state, was picked the Player of the Year in Section 4 (composing the 13th-16th Regions) and garnered the All-Area Position Player of the Year award from The Daily Independent.
She was also a Miss Softball finalist and a Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year nominee.
Hieneman called the cavalcade of accolades “surreal.”
“I’m not gonna play college softball, so I wanted to go out on top. I wanted to go out with a bang,” she said. “And this year, it’s really been an honor to receive so many awards that other amazing athletes have been in the running for, too.”
That list includes Female Sportsman of the Year, which has now gone to an area high school softball player in all three years of its existence. In 2014, the last year of a single-gender Sportsman of the Year award, a softball player claimed it, too — Boyd County’s Taylor Wheeler, daughter of Hieneman’s softball coach.
In fact, all four — Hieneman, Wheeler, Ashland’s Megan Hensley and Boyd County’s Destiny Goins — were multi-sport high school athletes.
“It’s a great honor and privilege,” Hieneman said of joining that company, “and I think we’re part of a great softball community (in northeastern Kentucky) that’s overlooked a lot (on the state level).”
Wide-ranging impact No one locally overlooked Hieneman’s presence. Russell faced Ashland in the 16th Region Tournament quarterfinals this spring. Ingram wanted no part of pitching to Hieneman in a close elimination game, which the Kittens eventually won, 6-5.
“Where’s Hieneman in the lineup, was the question. How far away?” Ingram said. “That’s what I was always thinking, in different situations, how we were gonna pitch somebody (in front of her). We actually, in her last at-bat, intentionally walked her, so that tells you what I thought about her.”
Following the Lady Devils’ softball season, Hieneman was recognized for the combination of her athletic and academic prowess and community service with the KHSAA Female Student- Athlete of the Year Award.
“A lot of (success) has to do with the makeup of the individual. Are they driven?” Dave Wheeler said. “I think Sara is career- driven. I think at an early age she wanted to be a really good softball player, be a great hitter, and she worked at it.
“Same with her background in academics. She was already studying, going to tutor sessions, group study halls with her peers, and she was able to recognize you get out of it what you put in. That’s carried over to both fields.”
Hieneman fits the Russell profile of combining focus on academics and extra-curricular activities, as well as participation in multiple sports.
“Sara’s always been involved in almost everything, and Russell is such a great place for that,” said Lady Devils volleyball coach Tiffany Perry. “I think that was the best choice for her as a person, because she seems to fit that perfect student- athlete profile.”
Hieneman said she likes Russell’s relatively small enrollment for that reason.
“It allows us the opportunity to be involved in more things, and I’m really thankful for that because I love playing the sports that I play,” she said. “I love being able to try different things, if there’s an opportunity.”
Softball gets edge
Hieneman said of her two sports, her “heart is kinda drawn toward softball a little bit more, but I’m not taking anything away from volleyball. I love that sport too.”
It showed, Perry said, by the personal sacrifices Hieneman made to play it.
“Any time we would have a tough match, if she was injured, she would go get her leg wrapped or go get her ankle wrapped at a physical therapy place, and that way she could play in those games,” Perry said. “She fought through the pain, and that is something that almost brings tears to my eyes, because she put her overall well-being and her injuries aside for her team, and I don’t think I’ve seen anyone else do something like that.”
Hieneman sustained nagging injuries to her right ankle and Achilles tendon during her senior season, so she moved from her middle blocker position to a role on the back row. She still finished as the team leader in aces and good passing and second in kills and blocks. Hieneman was volleyball All-Area her last three seasons.
She posted a career-high 10 aces on her senior night, a 3-2 win on Oct. 4 over Fairview. The Lady Devils, who had lost to the Lady Eagles earlier in the season, fell behind two sets to none and rallied to win that October night.
Hieneman listed that match among her favorite Russell sports memories, along with going to the state volleyball tournament in 2012, hitting two home runs in a revenge win over Raceland in the 2016 63rd District Tournament softball finals, and the softball Lady Devils’ spring break trips to Myrtle Beach.
Hieneman, who went out of her way to thank her teammates and coaches, has accomplished all this with a soft-spoken spirit that belies her ability to change a game with one swing of her bat or arm.
It didn’t fool Ingram, who has seen Hieneman as a friend as well as a foe. His daughter Gabby played travel softball with Hieneman.
“She’s kind of like the quiet kid you didn’t want to pick on at school, because if you make them mad, they just go off on you,” Ingram said. “I never wanted to do anything to make Sara mad, because she’d hit one about 800 feet on you.”
Adkins, too, now knows what it’s like to try to use Hieneman as an asset, and to try to limit her.
“I have coached a lot of girls with talent, I have coached a lot of girls with a good work ethic, and I have coached a lot of girls with a good attitude and a real drive to win,” he said. “I have coached very few who have all of these traits at the level Sara does, and even fewer that can compete the way she does and still be loved by friend and foe. Sara is truly the reason so many of us love high school athletics.”
Wheeler said Hieneman’s game didn’t “come with a whole lot of bells and whistles.”
“She just goes out and produces,” he said. “The big thing that I’m gonna miss with Sara is when she’d hit a home run, she’d be trotting around the bag and she’d get close to third, she had that look in her eye, like, ‘Yeah, I got ahold of that one good.’” After Ingram’s team ended Hieneman’s softball career in the region tournament, the two shared a moment on the field at West Carter.
“I never saw her pout, complain, argue a call,” Ingram said. “It’s what you would want in a player as a coach.”
Perry said half-jokingly that now that she’s no longer Hieneman’s coach, she can consider her a friend. Their relationship goes back to when Perry was student-teaching Hieneman in middle school.
“Sara was one of the few who totally accepted me initially (as a coach), and she was just there to help me along,” Perry said. “I know that Darrell left some big shoes to fill, but Sara accepted me, I would say, more than any other player. I don’t think that’s because I knew her from middle school, but because of her character and just who she is as a person.
“I can see us having a lifelong friendship, because she’s just that kind of person.”
Russell’s Sara Hieneman watches a pitch hit her bat during a game this season. Hieneman is the Tony Curnutte Memorial Female Sportsman of the Year for 2016-17. The two-sport standout starred in softball and volleyball as a Lady Devil.
Sara Hieneman prepares to serve the volleyball during a match last fall.
Russell third baseman Sara Hieneman sets to make a throw to first against Greenup County this season.
PHOTOS BY KEVIN GOLDY | FOR THE DAILY INDEPENDENT