With its defense already a strong suit, Omaha Marian has been able to work more on its hitting the past few weeks.

The results are showing for the Class A No. 3 Crusaders (21-5) heading into state tournament that begins Wednesday in Hastings.

Led by junior Tatum Villotta, who is batting .518 with 44 hits and 37 runs, six Marian players are hitting .422 or better against one of the state’s more difficult schedules. Coach Chad Perkins, whose squad is making its third appearance at state in four seasons, said more mental work before each at-bat is beginning to make a difference.

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“We just talked about having a good approach at the plate, having a plan and sticking to it,” Perkins said. “Know the zone you want to attack early, and we’ve always stressed going through their at-bat not only when they’re on-deck, but when they’re in the hole.”

Junior catcher Kaydence Skiles and senior first baseman Katrina Palmer are hitting .500 while Maddia Groff (.458), Megan Lawson (.438) and Abigayle Russell (.422) help make Marian’s lineup one of the state’s best.

Groff also has evolved into one of the state’s best pitchers with a 17-2 record and 1.66 ERA. Perkins said he knew the freshman would be a good addition to Marian’s rotation, but he didn’t expect these kinds of numbers right away.

“The thing that helped Maddia and her Under-14 club team is that they moved up to play in a few Under-18 tournaments last season,” Perkins said. “They were facing really solid competition, and she held her own against those players. I didn’t think things would go this good, but I knew she’d be solid.”

“One of the good things about Maddia is she doesn’t get behind in the count very often. She also does a great job hitting her spots.”

With Groff anchoring the staff, Marian’s defense sets up stronger because Russell can stay shortstop with Lawson at second and Villotta at third. When Russell is called on to pitch, Lawson moves to shortstop and Groff’s twin sister Rylinn moves in at second.

Marian opens the tournament at 2 p.m. Wednesday against Lincoln North Star (28-10). The teams played earlier this season in the Westside Invitational, with the Crusaders winning 18-5.

But Perkins said Marian isn’t resting on its laurels.

“We’re going to do a fresh start with this new season,” Perkins said. “(North Star has) a lot of hitters top to bottom, and they’ve been pretty hot lately. One thing I like about our team this year is that it’s unique and they’re very relaxed no matter who (they’re) playing.

“I’ve been around teams that have played to the level of their competition, but these girls don’t do that. They play for each other.”

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