Missouri Western softball doesn’t believe in preseason rankings. The team just wants to play.
After experiencing the aftermath of a high-forecast, coach Jen Bagley didn’t necessarily care for what people thought about this year’s squad. However, after winning its first regular season MIAA Championship, she does think this team can do more than just duplicate an exceptional 2011 campaign.
“What felt good about that season was the hunger that team had to make right,” Bagley said. “They were motivated themselves to just say, ‘This is not going to happen again.’ I was really proud of the way our team last year responded.”
Western received eight first-place votes in the coaches preseason poll. Besides the conference, Western is placed in the top-25 nationally (23) in NFCA’s preseason pool.
It’s not the first time this team has been projected to place high.
The 2011 season came just one year after a frustrating 2010 year. Two years ago, Western looked like an NCAA national champion. With St. Joseph being the tournament host, Western was picked eighth in the preseason polls.
The Griffons didn’t meet that expectation; they didn’t come close. Western finished .500, and it was one of only two seasons since 2005 that Western did not make the playoffs.
With that in mind, the softball team isn’t looking ahead to anything. The core believes that as long as they play every game with solid pitching and good offense, the Griffons can win the conference.
“I’m very excited to see how are team is. It’s a new year so hopefully we can start it off well,” said Jackie Bishop, returning pitcher who was Freshman of the Year and First Team All-Conference in 2011.
Coming in as a freshman, many teams didn’t expect much out of Bishop. However, the 5-foot-8 sophomore won 25 games in 31 starts and had 224 strikeouts.
It’s reasons like that which make Bagley think twice about expectations and predictions.
“I never know how we’re going to be,” Bagley said. “I always see, as a coach, the things that you need to do better. You see the holes that you do have. And I always give credit to other teams in our conference because you don’t really know what they’re going to be putting on the field in February either.”
Western returns 10 of its 17 players. After losing home run sluggers Brittany Douglas and Toni Dance, the Griffons are left with a hole to fill.
Bagley recruited Kendall Sorensen, an outfielder from Sacramento City College, to help with the hitting. Western also returns catcher Keri Lorbert, a junior who placed third on the team with 11 homers.
Along with Lorbert, Maegan Roemmich returns to the team as a junior. Roemmich tied second on the team with 33 runs scored.
Adding to the list of returning players are seniors Blair Stalder and Leah Steele. Stalder hit 11 doubles and Steele started all 55 games in 2011 — both currently occupy the second and first base, respectively.
“I feel good about our returning players,” Bagley said. “We have a handful of girls that I feel like will get their home runs too. We’ll have probably five girls that will get five home runs or more.”
Western was second in the league last year in earned runs averaged. The only team that topped the Griffons was Nebraska-Omaha, who has since moved past the MIAA and into Division I. With UNO leaving, one player preferred to stay in the MIAA.
Sarah Elliot looks to step in and provide solid defense for the Griffons. Elliott chose to leave UNO when the option presented itself and said both of her sisters are expected to attend Western in the future, part of her reason to play here.
The junior shortstop stole 10 bases for her previous squad.
“I wanted to stay close to home,” said Elliott, who is from Platte City. “Everyone clicks here. Everyone’s a team.”
The Griffons also received help from a solid freshman class, according to Bagley. Bre Fleschner, from St. Charles, Mo., is expected to start in the outfield.
“We have to handle the ball in the circle,” Bagley said. “If we can pitch well, we can forgive a lot of other things. Last year our home runs covered up a lot of stuff. This year I feel like how we handle the ball defensively is going to cover up what may not be able to produce well offensively.”
The Griffons kick off their 2012 season this weekend in Arkadelphia, Ark., where they are scheduled to play six games. They play their first home game March 6 against Quincy.
Photos by Jason Brown