ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Tabor College softball coach Tina King believes the foundation for a solid program was formed in her first season with the Bluejays a year ago.
Although Tabor’s record was 10-23 overall and 7-9 for a sixth-place finish in the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference, King feels the building blocks are in place to challenge for an upper-division finish this spring.
“I saw a lot of improvement throughout my first season here and near the end of last year, this team really came together,” King said. “I see a lot more improvement all around at every position going into this year.”
King said her aspirations of finishing at or near the top of the nine-team KCAC pack are realistic.
“Our goal is to finish in the top three in the KCAC,” she said. “I think we have the ability to do that.
“Early, we’ve had to practice inside most of the time so it’s hard to gauge how much we really have improved, but the talent is definitely there.”
King said the Bluejays will base their hopes on a quartet of returning players who earned All-KCAC honors last year.
Heading that group is junior pitcher/second baseman Johannah Love, who was a unanimous first-team pick last year.
Although her record on the mound was only 5-12, Love was a workhorse as she pitched 991/3 innings, threw 2,075 pitches and allowed 109 hits and 40 earned runs.
She also struck out 52 hitters (5.92 per game) while walking only 36 on the way to a 2.82 earned-run average.
On offense, she led the team with a .277 batting average, 28 hits and two home runs. Love’s four triples ranked her second in the KCAC.
“Jo is an all-around leader on the field,” King said. “She knows softball both physically and mentally. She’ll be very important to us not only pitching but with her bat as well.”
Hillsboro native Holly Lindsay returns after receiving honorable mention honors as a pitcher and second baseman.
Lindsay was 5-9 on the hill, working 991/3 innings while throwing 1,261 pitches and striking out 52 (4.71 per game).
A junior, Lindsay hit .202 with 17 hits in 84 at-bats, including a team-high 12 runs batted in.
“Holly will be a stronger pitcher this season because of the program she’s been on,” King said. “I think she’ll also be a solid second baseman when she’s not on the mound.”
Tabor’s third All-KCAC performer is Jacqueline Schnell, an honorable-mention pick at shortstop.
Schnell hit .194 for the Bluejays with 23 hits in 118 plate appearances, including five doubles and 13 stolen bases.
“Jackie is a good all-around player who’s a very important player for us to have on the field at all times,” King said. “She was recruited as a catcher but hasn’t played that position (at Tabor) due to her athleticism. Hopefully, we’ll have enough balance this year that we can spare her to catch when Jo is pitching.
“Her ability as a catcher will complement our pitching.”
Erin Loewen, the only senior on this year’s squad, was an honorable mention pick in center field. Loewen hit .205, collecting 23 hits in 112 at-bats.
“Right now, Erin is looking good both on defense and at the plate,” King said. “She’ll basically run our outfield as far as being the leader out there. She challenges the other players and tells them what they need to do.”
Rounding out the position players are Julie Wall (.113 batting average) at catcher, Porche Davis (.184) at third base, Andrea Mendel (.142) in left field and April Funk or Sara Thiessen in right field.
Thiessen is new to the squad this season as is Tamara McCarren, Micca Petersen, Stephanie Stuber and Erica Dechant.
Petersen and McCarren figure to split time at first base.
Stuber and Dechant, both members of the Bluejay’s KCAC champion basketball team, will join the squad when basketball concludes.
King said the new players will enhance the solid core returning for Tabor.
“Micca has extremely good feet and moves well,” King said. “And Tamara is very athletic. If she makes contact at the plate, it will be gone, I guarantee.
“April will also be able to do some throwing on the mound. She doesn’t throw as hard as some others and it’ll throw hitters timing off. Some of these new players are going to surprise some people.”
Defense, King said, is the staple of this year’s team.
“I basically have every position covered from last year and those people feel really comfortable this year and more in control,” King said. “I think our defense gives me the most confidence of any aspect of this team.
“I feel like if other teams hit off us, they aren’t going to get on base unless it’s a good shot,” she added. “Right now we look really good.”
Defense, King said, is the backbone of a conference contender.
“We have to play error-free ball-I hate to say that,” King said. “But with the way pitching is today, a lot of games are low-scoring, close games.
“The difference in winning and losing is playing solid, error-free defense.”
Favored to win the KCAC this year are Sterling and McPherson. Tabor was picked to finish at or near the bottom of the pack.
“I don’t pay any attention to that,” King said. “I’d rather be predicted low than at the top, where everyone is trying to knock you off.
“But the girls aren’t fazed by the ranking,” she added. “They know what we have and what we can do and, as long as they’re determined to win, I think we’ll find success.”
Tabor’s offense may be a point of concern. The Bluejays batted .170 as a team last year, dead last in the KCAC. King knows the offense will have to improve if success is to be achieved.
“Hopefully, once we get outdoors and play some games against live pitching, we’ll be able to get our offense going,” she said. “As coaches, we’re trying to make some changes in our hitting.”
Leadership, both off and on the field, won’t be a problem, King said.
“We only have one senior, but these girls got a lot of playing experience last year,” she said. “Erin has the desire to finish her senior year as a winner, and I think that desire to play hard will show. With the success she had in volleyball, she knows how to win.
“Jo and Jackie are both leaders as well,” she added. “They have great knowledge of softball and they carry themselves in a way that proves they want to win.”
King said coaching softball at Tabor provides her with much more than a paycheck.
“I really enjoy working with the girls and seeing how much desire they have to win,” she said. “Whatever I tell them to do, they go the extra step to do it.
“At a school this size, when you recruit players you have to realize they’re here for academics and they do sports for the enjoyment of the game.”
Whether Tabor continues its progression up the conference ladder won’t be known for awhile, but King said she has the building blocks.
“I’d like to take this program to the top of the conference by the time this junior class graduates,” she said. “I know that sounds unreal, but we’ve been working hard on recruits for next season and we have a great class coming in.”
King hopes people in and around Hillsboro will support the program. If given a chance, she believes her squad will win over the hearts of spectators.
“I hope people come out to watch the girls play,” she said. “If they’ve only seen high school softball, or if they haven’t seen softball at all, they’ll be shocked.
“They’ll see a team that really works hard, a team that’s a good group of girls and they’ll be surprised to see just how good we really are.”
Coming-Tabor returns to the diamond on Saturday to host Haskell Indian Nations University in a doubleheader beginning at 1 p.m.
Admission is free.