SOFTBALL PREVIEW: Vikings look to return to post-season play
Jan. 20, 2005
BELLINGHAM, Wash. - Coming off an up-and-down season, the Western Washington University softball team hopes to have a smooth ride in 2005, all the way to the NCAA Division II West Regional.
"I think we played below what we expected to do last year," said coach Lonnie Hicks (4th year, 75-60), whose Vikings finished 22-23 in 2004, and placed fifth in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference at 11-13, after going 26-22 and reaching the regionals in 2003. "The real glitch for us was timely hitting. We lost several games by one run and many times had the opportunity to take control of games but we just weren't able to get it done."
To address the problem, Hicks initiated some new training methods during the off-season aimed at improving his team's offensive production. He also increased conditioning, to prevent slumps that have plagued Western the last two years.
Last season, the Vikings won 11 of their first 15 games, before losing 18 of the next 24. In 2003, they got off to a 9-5 start, then lost eight of the next 11.
"We've started really strong in each of the last two years, then hit a real down point," Hicks said. "We finished both seasons strong, so what we're going to work on this season is maintaining consistency all the way through. With the training and conditioning that we've done, the players should be a lot stronger."
Despite a youthful roster with just five upperclassmen, the team does have experience as most of the 10 returning letter winners saw significant playing time last spring.
"We do have a very young team, but both of our seniors are exceptional ballplayers," Hicks said.
McPhee enters the season with a career average of .348, which ranks second among Western's all-time leaders. Twice a first-team GNAC all-star and a second-team West Region choice in 2003, she has been the team's leading hitter the past two seasons.
Last year, McPhee hit .349, drove in 19 runs and scored 24. In 2003, she batted .356 and drove in 28 runs.
"Going into her senior year, I believe Megan will improve even further even though she's been one of the best hitters in the league the past two years," said Hicks. "She's really been one of the backbones of our offense."
Moore has 10 career home runs, two shy of the school record. She ranks fourth among Western career leaders in runs batted in with 78 and triples with 11, and her 19 doubles rank sixth. Moore was an honorable mention GNAC all-star last season, hitting .279 with a team-high 25 RBI, 15 runs scored, 10 doubles and seven triples. Moore hit just one home run in 2004 after having a school-record five in 2003 and four in 2002.
"Adrienne has been everything for this team," Hicks said. "She's done a phenomenal job. She is an outstanding hitter and exceptional third baseman."
A second-team GNAC all-star last season, Kaestner led the league with 21 stolen bases in 23 attempts. She hit .333 with a team-best 16 multiple-hit games and scored a team-leading 31 runs. Barber was a perfect 9-for-9 in stolen bases and an honorable mention GNAC all-star with a .303 batting average and 23 runs scored.
"They both had great sophomore years and I expect to see a lot more production from them this year," said Hicks. "They did well last season but should really rise to the top this year."
Two sophomore pitchers back are Nicole Walker (Kenmore/Juanita), who will be the Vikings' center fielder when not pitching, and Jackie Quint (Silverdale/Central Kitsap). Both were starters as freshmen last season.
Walker posted an 11-6 record with a 1.97 earned run average, and struck out 64 in 103 innings pitched. She also hit .260. Quint had a 5-9 mark -- the Vikings scored just six runs in her nine losses -- and a 2.53 ERA with 64 strikeouts in 105 innings.
"As freshmen, I thought they handled the higher level of ball very well," Hicks said. "This year, you can really see in how they carry themselves that their confidence level is way up. Their approach to the game is going to be a lot different. I really expect good things from them."
Also expected to be part of the starting rotation is junior transfer Stephanie Sheppard (Camas). At Lower Columbia River CC, she helped lead the Red Devils to two Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges titles. In two years, she compiled a record of 24-2 with a 0.90 ERA, and recorded three no-hitters, one a perfect game.
"Stephanie is going to help bring more maturity to the team," Hicks said. "We've got three pitchers who will battle and will share equal time on the mound. We'll always have a backup ready to go so that'll be really nice."
The Vikings also have experience behind the plate as junior catcher Rachel Ellis (Pleasant Hill, CA/Santa Cruz) played in 21 games and made 13 starts last season.
"Rachel is a very heady catcher who really understands the game and its subtleties," Hicks said. "She'll help our younger catchers understand how to work with pitchers and how to read the field. That's going to be a big plus."
Again sharing time at first base will be the "twin towers," sophomores Cortney Walton (Chesapeake, VA/Great Bridge) and Ashley Osman (Federal Way/Jefferson). The 5-foot-10 Walton and the six-foot Osman give the other infielders something to aim for.
"Both are big targets," Hicks said. "I think the improvement we'll see out of them this year is their hitting. Defensively, they do a very good job and they both can generate a lot of pop on the ball."
Adding depth to the outfield is sophomore Kizzy Crouse (Baraboo, WI), who played in 10 games last season and should also see duty at designated hitter this year.
Hicks also expects to have a group of seven freshmen make an immediate impact.
"Every one of the freshmen brings something a little different to the table," he said. "Some bring in a lot of speed, while others bring in a lot of consistency. They all bring in a winning attitude and they are definitely team-type players. I think the combination of old and new players is going to be very effective"
Beardemphl was a first-team Class 4A all-state choice, and Pendergrast earned first-team Northwest League all-star honors.
Rounding out the list of first-year players, all of whom were first-team all-league in high school, are second baseman Katie Barker (Auburn/Auburn-Riverside), second baseman Stephanie Ellis (Bellingham), utility infielder Mallory Townsend (Puyallup/Emerald Ridge), and catcher Liza Teichler (Sammamish/Skyline) and catcher Michelle Ball (Gig Harbor/Peninsula). Hicks expects Ellis to redshirt this season.
A schedule that features more home games than in past seasons should help Western.
"I think our schedule is more balanced," said Hicks, whose team is slated to play 19 games at Viking Field. "We had three trips to California back-to-back-to-back last season, and it took a toll. We didn't get a chance to come back and work on any of the problems that we started to develop."
More home games and a roster with a healthy mixture of youth and experience, good offense and defense, and solid pitching could be the ingredients needed for Western to return to the West Regional after a one-year absence.
"I think this group of players has joined together and is working for one purpose instead of any individualistic things that might be going on," Hicks said. "We'll be stronger defensively and a lot stronger offensively."
To qualify for regionals, Western must either win the league title or be one of five at-large teams determined by the final West Region poll. Rounding out the eight-team field will be the California Collegiate Athletic Association and Pacific West Conference champions. The West Regional winner advances to the NCAA II National Championships. Hicks expects the GNAC title to be up for grabs with several teams in contention.
"We have the potential of making the post season because we really have all the elements there," Hicks said. "The biggest thing is the players' strong work ethic and their attitude. I think that gives us a good shot at going a long way."
Western opens its 2005 season March 4-6 at the Central Washington University Invitational.
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