Cohesive unit looks to surprise conference foes

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Rarely is the word “optimism” used in association with a team picked to finish seventh in a nine-team conference, but this year the Tabor College women’s softball team thinks it has what it takes to prove the pundits wrong.

“I think our talent level is in the top two or three in this league,” said first-year coach Tina King. “I’m just amazed to think these 10 women didn’t win more games last year than they did.”

King begins her second stint as a Tabor head coach having led the volleyball team during the 1990s.

“I played high school and college softball (at Tabor College) and I’ve been coaching a traveling tournament team for several years,” King said of her credentials. “I’ve seen the level of talent that Tabor softball players have had over the years and I think with my experience as a coach and as a player I can bring that talent out.”

King will be assisted by coach Brandon Feidler and student assistant Kara Chisholm.

Tabor comes off a 15-26 record overall and a 2-12 mark in the KCAC. But don’t tell King and her Bluejays their destiny is set in stone.

“We hope to finish in the top five and make the conference tournament,” King said. “The women feel they should have been in the top three last year and they’re determined to prove they can do that this year.”

King faces the challenge with limited resources with only 10 women on the roster.

“I think having only 10 players will actually benefit us,” King said. “We don’t have to have anyone sitting on the bench.

“We’ve become a very bonded team already because we know this is us and that’s all we have,” she added. “As a first-year head coach, I’m glad I don’t have a lot of numbers to work with.”

King pointed to other teams in the KCAC that have overflowing rosters and likes her situation at Tabor.

“Some places have wall-to-wall players,” she said. “Some of those players have to sit out two years before they get a chance to play.

“My women will get the experience right away.”

Without a doubt, the marquee player for Tabor is returning first-team all-conference pitcher Johannah Love, a sophomore from Wichita.

“She’s a very talented and very skilled player,” King said. “She throws five pitches-change up, fast ball, screwball, riser and drop ball-and she’s very consistent.

“She’s one of those that if we get in a bind, she’s smart enough and talented enough to get us out of it.”

Leading Tabor to the third-best team earned-run average in the conference last season, Love threw 1,222 pitches in 96 innings, striking out 63 batters on the way to a 7-8 record.

Offensively, Love collected 27 hits in 99 at bats for a .273 average.

Joining Love in the starting rotation is Hutchinson Community College transfer and Hillsboro native Holly Lindsay.

“She’s coming along,” King said of the sophomore. “Holly is very strong and is working on her pitches. She doesn’t have the velocity Jo does, mainly because she sat out last year.”

Senior Hillary Driffill provides a good target for Tabor infielders at first base.

“I put Hillary there because of her height,” King said. “She’s adapting well to playing in the infield because she’s always been in the outfield.”

Second baseman Porsche Davis, a sophomore, provides athleticism at second base.

“She hadn’t played since high school, but she’s really improving,” King said. “We need to get her hitting the ball better, but her fielding is right on track.

“She brings a lot of spirit and spunk to the team, so she’s a great addition.”

Depending who King has in the pitching circle, either Lindsay or sophomore Jacqueline Schnell will play shortstop.

“Jackie is very skilled whether she’s at short or catching,” King said. “She’s a great all-around player and you can tell she’s very well groomed in softball.”

Schnell led the Bluejays in hitting last year with a .333 average, collecting 37 hits in 111 at bats while scoring a team-high 15 runs.

Rounding out the infield is sophomore Holly Dechant at third base.

“At the beginning of the year she was struggling at the plate, but she’s really improving,” King said. “She seems to get on base almost every time now.”

Providing leadership for the outfield will be honorable mention all-conference centerfielder Erin Loewen, a junior.

“Erin can really move and get to balls,” King said. “She’s a great outfielder and she’ll be a key to our defense.”

Joining Loewen in the grass will be left field Lacy Frantz-Vogt, a freshman from Hillsboro.

“Lacy will be a great player,” King said. “The biggest challenge for her is getting her used to adjusting to the speed of the pitches.

“It’s a big step coming from high school to college,” King added. “Lacy gets a quick jump on balls and can cover a lot of ground.”

Rounding out the outfield is sophomore Andrea Mendel in right field.

“She could play either infield or outfield, but we’ve chosen to put her in right field,” King said. “She’s learning that as a new position and she’s really coming around and adapting pretty quickly.”

Behind the plate will be Julie Wall, a sophomore from Hillsboro.

“Julie is a lefty and we really want to work on her hitting,” King said. “She kind of struggled at the plate last year, so we’re trying to emphasize her hitting this year.”

King said she’s excited to have the opportunity to head such a talented group of athletes.

“I think we’ll surprise a lot of people,” she said. “This team is very coachable and I’ve enjoyed every moment so far.

“They’ll give the extra effort to work and get better and change things if we think it’ll make us a better team.”

Defense, according to King, will provide stability while the Bluejay offense works out its kinks.

“Our defense can keep us in any game right now, but you can’t score without hitting so we’ll be focusing on that.”

Hitting is “about 75 percent mechanics” according to King, so attention to detail is a necessity.

“It’s more what you do with your hips,” she said. “If you just use your arms, you won’t be nearly as effective.

“This team is very athletic,” King said. “We have enough ability that if we can get on base, we have the speed to steal bases.”

King said contrary to belief, softball players need to be in excellent physical condition.

“Being in shape will make us quicker on the draw than a lot of other teams,” she said. “I think it’ll give us better overall quickness. It also elasticizes our muscles and it’ll cut down on our injuries.”

Loewen and Driffill have taken on leadership roles, King said.

“They’ve been around longer so they know what it takes to get things done.”

Team camaraderie is essential to a squad short in numbers.

“Our group compliments each other very well,” King said. “If someone makes a good play they’ll let them know and, conversely, if someone makes a mistake, no blame is placed or fingers pointed.

“That makes for a lot better team atmosphere and these women are determined to be good team players.”

Since King was a late hire, she didn’t get a chance to recruit. But thanks to her knowledge of the summer circuit and connections in and around Kansas City, King said bringing quality student-athletes to Tabor shouldn’t pose much of an obstacle.

“Lots of Kansas City kids are going to play Division I softball, but they have teammates who aren’t stars, yet will fit in great here at Tabor,” she said.

“I also know if a girl is dedicated enough to play softball during the summer, they’re someone who loves the game and is serious enough to help us here.”

McPherson, with four returning first-team all-conference selections and four honorable-mention selections returning, is the overwhelming favorite to capture the KCAC title this year.

King hopes her knowledge of and devotion to softball helps her in the teaching aspect of her coaching duties.

“I’ve coached women for eight years in college before this and I respect them,” she said. “I know how to play the game and I’m willing to go the extra step and learn whatever it takes to make us a great softball team.”

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