It’s all so different now, with the passage of four years. Though the high school career of the Valley’s ace softball hurler has seemed to her to go by in a blink, it’s been four tedious and depressing seasons of futility for opposing hitters. As Iliana Hinojosa heads into the stretch run of her final campaign for North, she is able to see the picture in relief, having come all that distance since she began as a callow but promising freshman.

If one were to put the Ili of 2007 and the one from 2010 side by side to study, it would make for fascinating research, because both physically and mentally, she has made worlds of progress. She now can be heard in the Lady Cougar dugout, singing and laughing, getting fired up. Freshman year, she didn’t say 10 words to anyone, so shy was she.

“It makes a difference, I guess, because when other girls see you getting into the game like that, they do the same,” said Hinojosa, a self-admitted “sweet little girl” as a youth who had to develop a killer instinct gradually. ‘I sometimes feel that even now I can be too timid at times, I don’t know…But this team is so close, we get along so well, that I think it’s helped me be more vocal. I feel more confident in myself these days and it shows…I like it.”

Funny that she should use the word “timid.” This is the area’s most dominant pitchers we’re talking about, one who has won over 80 games in her career, a girl who goes out to the mound knowing that odds are that the other team is scared to death to stand in there against her blazing fastball and try to retire her lethal bat at the plate.

Perhaps it comes from being the largest player on the team, something Hinojosa has always been. There’s no way around it, she is a big girl, and though her size and strength have been a boon to wins on the hill and prodigious drives at bat, it hasn’t exactly been the same in normal life. This is a delicate matter, but Hinojosa, always a thoughtful sort who measures her comments, was not loath to discuss it.

“It has always made me self-conscious, really, but it is who I am, and it’s not going to change,” she remarked. “I have always had to battle with losing weight, and it’s not that easy. I got into pretty good shape in the summer, working out a lot, but the weight always seems to come back.”

One has to admire a person who faces such testy topics straight on. Hinojosa is after all, a real person aside from her softball legend and sometimes people tend to forget that. They see an award-winning athlete and fail to realize that such superstars are prone to struggling with various issues just like the rest of us mere mortals.

Maybe that’s why she can speak with expertise about the 2010 season, in which North has gone 8-2 in District 31-5A and is looking like a champion. The only thing that will hold the Lady Cougars back, says their star tosser, is nerves.

“Sometimes I can get out there and be too tense,” she noted. “And the other girls do that too. We just have to maintain our focus and get it done. The more you think about things like getting clutch hits, or not striking out, the tougher they become to actually do.”

Hinojosa plans on continuing the fight against her weaknesses at the next level, and to that end, has put the speculation to rest on the part of area observers by committing to Hill Junior College in Central Texas. At that two-year college, she will do a number of things.

“I want to see how I like playing at the college level first of all,” she said. “And I know that the coaches there have college experience, and they are going to teach me more about pitching and also help me get in better shape. When I went over there to try out they were already teaching me things, and I have been able to use some of them this season.”

As for now, she is deadset on leading her team to a league title and making a splash in the playoffs. While she will not rate this team against some of the past, Hinojosa thinks that North has a chance to stack up well.

“The team we had in 2008, it was really good, a great hitting team,” she recalled, of the group that went three-deep in the postseason. “This year we have as a good a defense as any year I have been here. I guess we’ll just have to see how far we go.”

Which leads to the question on the minds of all city softball fans. As North worked through the crunch time of the schedule (a huge game looms Friday against Harlingen South, one of two teams to beat the Lady Coogs in league play), Hinojosa knew that the Test, Part Two, awaited.

April 24 is the night when EHS comes to town, and the Lady Bobcats (also 8-2 heading into this week’s action) are still peeved about a 6-5 loss suffered at home to North during first-half play. While Hinojosa, following her reputation as a nice person, is quick to stress that the girls on the two teams are all friends and that there is no real animosity below the surface of extreme competition, she will also add that there’s something more there, in a good way.

“We all know each other so well, a lot of us have played together in travel ball,” she commented. “That’s why we just want to win so bad. Nothing wrong with that, right?”

She further explained that unlike an earlier loss to Harlingen this season, the girls in gold have no problem getting set for the Feline Grudge Match.

“When we lost to Harlingen, we were not up for the game, and that’s just wrong,” she complained. “It should never be like that, you always need to stay focused and be intent on winning. But against Edinburg, well, that is not a problem, believe me. There won’t be any distractions. We will come to play, like, it’s Bobcats, you know what I mean? That’s different, always!”