Feb. 5, 2009
NACOGDOCHES, Texas -
With nearly every starter back from the best Stephen F. Austin softball team in almost two decades, expectations are high for the 2009 Ladyjacks. From an outsider's perspective, that might seem like a new outlook for a team that hadn't made its conference tournament in 18 years. But, according to second-year head coach Gay McNutt, from the inside looking out, lofty goals are nothing new for her squad.
"Last year, nobody but us expected anything from us," McNutt said. "We expected a lot of ourselves, and that's the attitude we cultivated."
Those expectations became reality with a 36-25 overall record and the program's first-ever berth in the NCAA Division I Championships. SFA's history in the Southland Conference - entering the 2008 campaign, the Ladyjacks had not reached the SLC Tournament since 1990, hadn't posted a winning record since '91 and hadn't won more than 30 games in a season since '94 - made the Ladyjacks' 2008 performance more impressive and surprising - at least for the competition.
"Our opponents' expectations last year were a lot different than ours," McNutt said. "But, this season, I don't think we'll catch anybody off-guard. So we have to raise our own expectations."
SFA will take the first step toward raising its level of competition Friday, when the Ladyjacks open play in the Time Warner Cable Texas Invitational. SFA will take on Iowa at noon before meeting host team Texas in a 7:30 p.m. contest. The Ladyjacks will continue tournament play Saturday, when they take on Florida State.
McNutt said her team's improved goals include a regular-season SLC title and a return trip to the NCAA Tournament, with a better post-season performance this time around. SFA suffered a pair of 2-0 losses against Texas A&M and Auburn in last year's regional.
Whatever the level of anticipation within the program, the rest of the conference has already affixed the target to SFA's back. A year after finishing fourth in the SLC regular-season standings, the Ladyjacks were predicted to win the 2009 championship, according to preseason polling of league head coaches and sports information directors.
The reason for that respect lies in the number of players returning from last year's squad. The only Ladyjack lost to graduation was first baseman Jessica Tullos. The Lufkin, Texas, native set both the single-season and career records for home runs last year, but SFA brings back every other contributor from last season's team. Included in the fold are 2008 SLC Freshman of the Year and First-Team All-SLC selection Monika Covington, Second-Team All-SLC honoree Kendal Harper and Kim Daley, a third-team all-conference catcher a year ago.
"The returners have been amazing, as far as getting our new players up to speed and letting them know how we do things and what the standards are here," McNutt said.
Those standards are definitely higher following last season. SFA scored more runs (269) than any team in the Southland, and the Ladyjacks' .274 batting average ranked third in the SLC. SFA's pitching staff posted a 1.88 ERA, the best in the league and recorded more strikeouts (395) than any other squad in the conference.
"We'll be more versatile on offense this season," McNutt said. "There are things we couldn't do last year that we'll be able to do this year. We'll be quicker, and there will be some new things at the plate. It's not always going to be about power. We're looking to create certain situations and then capitalize on those situations."
SFA set a modern-era school record and was third in the SLC with 43 home runs last season.
"This year, we're concentrating more on gap-to-gap hitting," McNutt said. "We've got those kinds of hitters this year. We don't have to sit back and hope for the long ball. We did a lot of that last year."
Four of the top five batting averages from last season - Harper, a junior, senior Benet Higgs and sophomores Ashley Struchtemeyer and Monica Hirsch - are back to lead a dynamic Ladyjack lineup. Harper's .385 average led the team and ranked fourth in the SLC in 2008. Higgs batted .317 despite playing all season on an injured knee that required surgery over the summer.
In the circle, SFA returns a strong one-two punch in sophomores Covington and Lauren Luetge. Covington's 1.34 ERA ranked second in the Southland, and her 270 strikeouts led the league by a margin of 78 punchouts over the next-best total. Luetge cracked the conference's top 10 with 95 strikeouts despite spending the final portion of the season battling an injury.
"We're going to have one of the best pitching staffs in the conference," McNutt said.
The Ladyjacks' anticipated defensive alignment puts Hirsch in left field with Higgs in center and Harper in right. All three are left-handed batters who can slap-hit, and each is a threat to take the extra base, giving McNutt several options at the top of the lineup.
On the infield, SFA will have power and experience at the corners. Junior Briana Bishop will play third with Struchtemeyer moving from second base over to first, filling the position vacated by Tullos. Bishop tied for fourth on the team with six long balls last year, and her 34 RBI ranked eighth in the SLC. Struchtemeyer was second on the squad with eight home runs.
The Ladyjacks will start a pair of newcomers in the middle with freshman Jessica Arana at shortstop and junior Karissa Jones at second. McNutt calls Arana, "one of the best shortstops I've coached," and Jones makes her SFA debut after lettering twice at Southern Miss.
Daley, a senior, will serve as team captain from behind the plate, where she has started 163 of a possible 165 games over the last three seasons. Daley led SFA and finished fifth in the conference with 13 doubles.
"Kim is always going to be a key player for us," McNutt said.
As pleased as McNutt is with her starting lineup, she is quick to point out the depth of this year's bench.
"We'll probably have the strongest dugout I've had in a long time," the coach said. "When you have to sit down and really think hard about who's going to start and who's going to sit, that's a great position to be in."
The Ladyjack softball program is certainly in a different position than it was a year ago. The trick now, according to McNutt, is to hold ground and continue the building process.
"It's always tougher to stay on top than it is to work your way up from the bottom," she said. "I think the players are excited about the opportunity to build on what they did last year. They're looking forward to that challenge."
- SFA -