‘Jays set sights on KCAC tourney

Caitlin Avila (left) and Araselly Vargas are four-year seniors who will provide leadership and experience to guide the Tabor College softball team this season. Top on the Bluejays’ priority list is qualifying for the KCAC tournament this season after finishing ninth in the conference a year ago. Janae Rempel / Free Press
Caitlin Avila (left) and Araselly Vargas are four-year seniors who will provide leadership and experience to guide the Tabor College softball team this season. Top on the Bluejays’ priority list is qualifying for the KCAC tournament this season after finishing ninth in the conference a year ago. Janae Rempel / Free Press
What began as a season of promise for the Tabor College softball team a year ago ended in disappointment when the Bluejays failed to qualify for the KCAC tournament.

Tabor won one of its last 10 games in 2016, posting a 6-16 record in the conference to finish ninth. The Bluejays were 14-35 overall.

The Bluejays sustained some losses on the mound last year, thus piecing together a pitching staff and relying on young players who lacked experience in a varsity environment.

As a team, Tabor recorded an earned run average of 6.40 over 3051⁄3 innings pitched last year.

But it wasn’t just the mound that faced its challenges.

The Bluejays batted a collective .295 and were outscored 340 runs to 219.

“You could say it was our pitching, but our hitting wasn’t anything to brag about either,” coach Suzanne Unruh said. “At the beginning of the year, I would’ve thought our hitting was going to be one of our strong points. Just all around, not what I expected.”

Unruh said the experience last year has motivated her returning players this season.

“I think the returners that had to go through that came back this fall with a real bad taste in their mouth where they’re like, ‘Okay, this is not happening ever again, and we’ll do whatever it takes not to let that happen,’” Unruh said. “We’ve got some good kids that came back.

“I felt like throughout this year of practicing and getting things going, they kept that in mind, knowing that whatever it takes, we’re going to get back to the tournament because that’s what our expectations are.

“They know how important it is to stay healthy and stay out of trouble. I think it was a learning lesson maybe, so hopefully that works and we have a better season.”

Pitching

In addressing the team’s needs on the mound, Unruh turned to recruiting and has six pitchers on the roster this season.

Senior Brianna Quiroz returns to anchor the team. Quiroz shouldered a majority of the pitching duties a year ago, despite coming to Tabor to contribute in the outfield as well as part-time on the mound, Unruh said.

Quiroz threw 1531⁄3 innings a year ago, tallying an ERA of 5.71 and six wins and 17 losses.

Joining Quiroz on the mound are two junior college transfers: Stephanie Vejar out of Pima Community College, and Emily Ingalls out of Feather River College.

Unruh has added a pair of freshmen as well: Hannah Jones and Madison Byrd, who swing the bat well in addition to their contributions on the mound, Unruh said.

“They’re going to be hitting in the lineup as well, so that’s going to be different and unique,” she said. “That’ll be good when they get on the mound.”

Catching

The Bluejays have replaced All-KCAC honorable mention catcher Sara Vela, who graduated early and did not return for her final season of eligibility.

Junior Kerrigan Travens out of Feather River is expected to step into the starting role behind the plate.

“She’s solid,” Unruh said. “Having a good, smart, vocal leader behind the pitching is also huge.”

Infield

Tabor returns a majority of its infield. Solidifying the corners are returners Araselly Vargas, a senior, at third base; and Dani Calder, a sophomore, at first base.

Vargas is Tabor’s sole returning All-KCAC selection from last year. An honorable mention pick, Vargas was also a member of the gold glove team a year ago.

In 46 games last season, Vargas batted .324 with 45 hits, including six home runs and nine doubles. She drove in 38 runs.

Calder, meanwhile, batted .295 over 44 games with 31 hits, including seven doubles. She drove in 18 runs. She ranked 46th in putouts per game (6.7).

Sophomore Shanae Strate returns at second base. She batted .259 over 41 games with 30 hits, including one home run and four doubles. She had nine RBIs.

The Bluejays will need to replace shortstop Tori Rose. A couple of Bluejays are in contention for the starting nod, including returning sophomore Ariana Landeros, who saw action in 22 games last year; Byrd when she’s not on the mound; and freshman Arizona Schraeder.

“We’ve got three or four kids that are going to keep pushing and see who gets that spot,” Unruh said. “I was pleased with (Ariana) last year when she had to come in off the bench. (She) came in and gave us her best shot and she really did well.”

Outfield

The Bluejays will field some new faces in the outfield this season with the losses of Kellyn Holt, Stormie Bush and Ashton Bowen.

“The outfield’s got some competition, and it’s good competition,” Unruh said. “We don’t know what we’re going to do yet, but we’ve got some good new kids that we brought in that I think can help, as well as some returners that last year maybe didn’t get a lot of time because of seniors.”

Junior Raegan Ternes returns with experience. In 33 games last season, Ternes batted .272 with 22 hits, including four doubles. She drove in nine runs.

Sophomore Brittany Vankonynenburg also returns with experience, having played in 11 games a year ago. She batted .250 with five hits, including one double, and three RBIs.

Quiroz played some in the outfield when she wasn’t on the mound.

“Having those freshmen pitchers and those juco transfers giving us some innings, (Quiroz) can go back to the outfield,” Unruh said. “She’s an amazing centerfielder.”

Also in competition for starting roles are sophomore Sierra Becerra and junior Devon Fisk-Aguilar.

“It’s going to be a fight for a couple of spots out in the outfield,” Unruh said. “I think early on we’re going to mix them up (and) see where they fit best and help us in the lineup as well.”

Unruh has also brought in sophomore Josie Mora out of Eastern Florida State College.

“She’s a pretty good utility,” Unruh said. “I don’t know where she’s going to go, but she needs to be in there.”

Outlook

Offensively, Unruh said she is pleased with her team’s hitting, having worked on fundamentals as well as the mental aspect of the approach at the plate.

“We’ve been talking a lot about your at-bat approach, being mentally ready for that,” she said. “Fundamentally, we’ve worked on them so much. My goal is we work on that a lot in the winter, so when we come to game time, we don’t think about our swings. You’re just going up there to do your job.”

The Bluejays were picked eighth in the KCAC preseason poll. Oklahoma Wesleyan topped the poll, followed by Ottawa. Bethany and Friends tied for third.

Qualifying for the KCAC tournament—the top eight teams qualify following the regular season—is first on Unruh’s priority list.

“We have the potential,” she said. “Obviously, we’ve got to get back to the tournament.”

Having returning players gives the Bluejays an advantage, Unruh said.

“With the returners that we have, they know how important each game is,” she said. “They know how tough teams are, and they know how each team plays now.”

If anything, Tabor’s returners are motivated by last year’s disappointments.

“(Last season) sure was a rude awakening,” Unruh said. “It was a learning lesson, I’ll tell you that. If anything, we all learned and we all know we are not going to let that happen again. I think that makes everybody work just a little bit harder.”

Coming—Tabor will open the season with the NAIA College Cowtown Classic in Fort Worth Friday and Saturday. The Bluejays’ first game will be versus Huston-Tillotson Friday at 11 a.m., and Tabor will play five games in two days. The Bluejays will face top-ranked Oklahoma City later that day.

“When you go down (to Texas), you’re not going to play anybody easy, and you’re going to play kids that have six to eight games under their belts already,” Unruh said. “We have a really tough bracket of games. We’re just going to see what we’re made of.”

The Bluejays’ home opener will be Feb. 17 versus Northwestern at 4 p.m.