A tough non-conference schedule and strong work ethic should work in favor of the Tabor College softball team, which returns all but two starters.
Fifth-year coach Suzanne Unruh said her Bluejays have bought into the team?s goals for the season.
Tabor graduated first-team all-KCAC catcher Katie Henning and centerfielder Sarah Massey, who received honorable mention. But Unruh is confident her team can fill the voids.
Two players are vying for catching duties, including returning sophomore Sara Vela and incoming freshman Kaylie Felix.
?This year, (Sara?s) really stepped up, knowing what we expected from last year,? Unruh said. ?She was there and witnessed everything, so she has that desire to get in. She?s been doing really well.?
As a backup catcher last year, Vela also fulfilled pinch hitting duties.
?When we needed a big hit, she came in and hit really, really well,? Unruh said. ?A very clutch hitter.?
Unruh Felix is a ?great hitter? too and may be asked to take on pinch hitting duties this year.
?If Sara were to get behind the plate where Katie left us, Kaylie, as a freshman, would take on the role Sara had last year,? Unruh said. ?I feel we?re OK behind the plate. Just younger.?
Unruh said she has brought in a number of outfielders, including junior transfer Kellyn Holt from a nationally ranked program at Highland Community College.
Holt has filled Sarah Massey?s void in centerfield.
?She?s our lead-off hitter, slap hitter,? Unruh said. ?She?s actually hit home runs over the fence as a slap hitter. She?s very talented. She?s super fast, but she?s also got a lot of power. She?s a very big threat to the defenses we face.
?She gets things going for us with a lot of speed on the bases. She is very smart and very fast. She was a huge, huge grab for us, offensively and defensively.?
Rest of the lineup
With only two starters lost, the Bluejays return a majority of their lineup.
Senior Madison Tracy returns in left field, while senior Yasnaya Susoeff returns at second base.
Sophomore Araselly Vargas, who returns at third base, ranks 17th in NAIA Division I. She leads the KCAC in runs batted in (28) and ranks 21st in the NAIA in home runs (six). Through 25 games, she is batting .372 to lead the team.
?She?s stepped up a lot as a sophomore and really grown up,? Unruh said. ?She?s huge to have at third and in our lineup as a three-hole. Katie (Henning) was our three-hole last year.?
Junior Chelsea Nutt returns at shortstop, while senior Lauren Massey returns at first base.
Picking up duties in right field is junior transfer Stormie Bush out of Allen County Community College.
Tabor returns its pitching corps in its entirety, led by returning second-team, all-KCAC right-hander Marilee Burge. A sophomore this year, Burge gained valuable experience as a freshman, finishing with a 13-13 record.
?She?s gotten a lot better,? Unruh said. ?She?s smart. Having her start all of those games last year and then returning is a huge, huge gain because she knows what we want to do. She really wants to be a first-team, all-conference pitcher. That?s her goal.?
Additional returning pitchers are senior Jaycie Morris and Lauren Massey. Joining them is senior transfer Jordan Haney, who comes to Tabor from Southwestern Oklahoma University.
?(Jordan?s) a great relief pitcher,? Unruh said. ?She?s an amazing hitter, power hitter, and she can play first base. So even though she only has one year of eligibility left, she?s coming in strong.?
The Bluejays, currently 11-14 for the season, have played a tough non-conference schedule.
?We started in Texas and played all but one nationally ranked team,? Unruh said. ?We went down to OBU and played all ranked teams. So our first 10 games were all hard, and we came out on top of a few of those, so I was pleased.?
Unruh said the tough early games fueled the Bluejays? success in last season?s KCAC tournament. After losing their opener to Bethany, the Bluejays won their next four games to advance to the tournament championship, where their season ended with a 7-3 loss to Kansas Wesleyan.
The Bluejays were 24-26 overall last year.
?Last year, we had some rough patches, but I think playing all of those tough games early got us to the championship game in the tournament because we worked hard and we didn?t give up and we faced tough times,? Unruh said. ?When it got tough in the conference and we had to really bear down, I think that?s what helped us.?
She hopes the same holds true this year as the Blue?jays have turned their attention to KCAC play.
?We work really hard,? she said. ?All of that work in non-conference is for our conference. We have great leaders who keep these kids working, so I really hope that pays off for them.?
Unruh expects the Blue?jays to do well in a competitive KCAC.
?They?re working their tails off to try to get this,? she said. ?We?re trying to do our best to get them ready and as prepared as possible to really do well in conference this year.?
Unruh said it could be anybody?s title to win, and the Bluejays have a goal of finishing at the top.
?We have every right to want it just as bad as everybody else,? she said. ?These girls want to win.?
After a 3-1 start to KCAC play, the Bluejays will continue conference competition by hosting Friends in a doubleheader April 1 beginning at 4 p.m.