Feb. 8, 2007
NACOGDOCHES, Texas -
When asked to boil down her 2007 squad to a single descriptive word, "flexible" is the adjective Jenifer Wells chooses. But she's not talking about the Ladyjacks' range of motion. The second-year head coach of the Stephen F. Austin softball program is excited about the possibilities for the upcoming season, because her team is a collection of pieces that can be put together in several different combinations, both in the field and at bat. Wells will have what all coaches crave in a sport of strategy -- options.
Wells will get her first opportunity to exercise those options this weekend when the Ladyjacks open their 2007 season in Waco, Texas, at the Baylor Getterman Classic. SFA is scheduled to kick off its spring slate at 9:30 a.m. Friday with a game against Southern Miss. The Ladyjacks are set to play five games at the three-day tournament.
The Ladyjacks' versatility is most evident on defense, where the 2007 squad should provide quite a contrast from last season's more static defensive look. Wells is going from a team that last year saw five different players start more than 40 games apiece in the same defensive position to a squad that could produce several different defensive alignments, with each one as solid as the next.
"We have some very talented ball players with great athletic ability," the coach said. "This gives us numerous options when putting together a lineup."
The Ladyjacks finished in the middle of the Southland Conference pack defensively in 2006 with a .950 fielding percentage. This year, they return three-fourths of the core group from that defense with catcher Kim Daley and middle infielders Sydney Davis and Jessica Tullos coming back. Perhaps the best example of SFA's defensive flexibility, Tullos played four different infield positions last season.
"When we held intrasquad scrimmages in the fall, it was easy to pick teams," Wells said, "because we've got so many girls who can play more than one position. It's kind of fun that you can plug them in wherever you need somebody, and they do a good job there."
Heading into spring drills, Wells anticipates her starting infield to include Tullos, Davis and Heather Hebert, along with newcomer Bria Wilson. If Wilson proves capable at shortstop, the coach hopes to slide Davis over to third.
"Bria arrived in January, and she's coming off a great junior college career," Wells said. "She'll bring a lot of power to our lineup, along with some much-needed experience."
Wilson was a two-year starter at shortstop for Santa Barbara City College. She led the team to a second-place finish in the Western State's Conference last season, when she paced SBCC in all major offensive categories.
Wilson batted .523 with 68 hits, 39 runs scored and 39 runs batted in. She set a new school and conference record in 2006 with 15 home runs and led the team in doubles with 15. For her efforts, Wilson was named the WSC Player of the Year and First-Team Ju-Cal All-State.
It would take an experienced talent like Wilson to displace Davis, who had a very solid rookie campaign in 2006. She batted .246 with 12 runs driven in while playing shortstop in all but one game. In the field, Davis recorded a .929 fielding percentage, and her 68 putouts were second best on the team, among non-first basemen and catchers.
"Sydney did a great job last year as a freshman," Wells said. "She brings a very competitive attitude to the game."
On the right side of the infield, Tullos, who spent most of her time at second base last season, is expected to move to first, allowing Hebert to return to second after spending much of last year recovering from an injury.
Hebert started 13 of the first 20 games in 2006 before an injury ended her season with a .175 batting average.
"Heather has been healthy this fall and has gotten a lot of good quality practice time while she gets back into the swing of things," Wells said. "I expect for her to see quite a bit of time on the field this year."
Last year, Tullos saw time at catcher, first base, second and shortstop, in addition to serving as the designated player in three games. The junior hit .299 with 13 RBI, making her the top returning offensive player for SFA.
"Jessi did a great job last year, both offensively and defensively," Wells said. "She was our ultimate utility player. This year, I expect her to continue to improve and be a key player for us again."
Sophomore Kristyn Shelton will give the Ladyjacks an experienced option on the infield and in the batting order, should a change be required. Shelton batted .235 in 17 at-bats overall and was 3-for-4 with two runs and two RBI coming off the bench in spot duty.
"Kristyn is an infielder who adds depth for us at the corners. When she gets a little more experience, she'll really be able to help us."
The Ladyjacks will also carry three freshman infielders on the roster in Chelsea Carr, Briana Bishop and Candise Juarez.
"They're all really good athletes," Wells said of the newcomers. "They bring a variety of options to us."
In the outfield, Wells expects the battle for playing time to be fierce. She returns three reliable options in senior Crystal Dahlquist and sophomores Benet Higgs and Crystal Garcia. This offseason, SFA added three talented newcomers who should push for opportunities early and often -- freshmen Michelle Huffman and Kendal Harper and sophomore transfer Malina Meng.
As one of only two seniors on the squad, Dahlquist is being looked to as a leader for this year's team. She made 29 starts last year with 27 of them coming in left field. She was a .152 hitter and scored 10 runs. She was also a perfect 3-for-3 on stolen bases and made just two errors in 38 chances.
"Crystal has a lot of experience in the outfield," Wells said. "She's a quiet leader who the girls really respect. Offensively, she gets the job done because she's got both speed and power. She's a very consistent player."
Higgs played in 44 games last year, earning 24 starts, mostly in splitting time with Dahlquist in left field. She batted .250 and scored 15 runs. Higgs was near-perfect on the base paths, tying for third in the league with 15 steals in 16 attempts, and she was perfect in the field, recording 38 putouts and three assists without an error.
"Benet returns with a year of experience and should be an impact in the outfield," Wells said.
An infielder in high school, Garcia played sparingly last season, starting 13 games in right field and three as designated player. She hit .235 with 14 runs scored and six RBI.
"Crystal has some experience under her belt, now," Wells said. "She's still making the transition from infield to outfield, but she adds some good depth to our lineup."
The coach lauded the athletic ability of her two freshman outfielders, Huffman and Harper.
"Michelle is extremely fast," she said. "She has great instincts, both offensively and defensively. She seems to be one of the better students of the game that I've ever coached. Kendal is a phenomenal athlete. She has great speed. We're working on her offensive consistency, but she does a great job in the outfield. She's going to make it very competitive out there this year.
"Malina is a utility player who is strongest in the outfield," the coach added. "She's very quick and has great softball instincts."
SFA's athleticism will also give Wells some options when the Ladyjacks are at the plate and on the base paths. Her team is stocked with dependable bats and speedy runners who should be able to put pressure on opposing pitchers and defenses without relying on a couple of key hits every game for run support.
"Offensively we have some big shoes to fill," Wells said. "I feel like we have kids who are more consistent hitters, and our team speed is considerably better, so we won't have to rely on that one big hit. We will be able to manufacture runs."
Last season, SFA ranked third in the Southland Conference in batting average, hitting at a .273 clip, and was No. 3 in on-base percentage, reaching safely 34 percent of the time. The Ladyjacks also finished the year third in both stolen bases (55) and attempted steals (69), but were unable to turn those scoring opportunities into runs. SFA finished seventh in the league in scoring, crossing the plate just 183 times.
This year, Wells believes she has the tools to not only create even more scoring opportunities, but cash in on them, as well. SFA returns its leading base-stealer in outfielder Benet Higgs. Wells thinks she has at least six other legitimate speedsters in the fold, including returners Crystal Dahlquist, Crystal Garcia and Heather Hebert.
"Now, I think we have the ability to get into scoring position without having to trade outs for bases," Wells said. "Our speed makes us more of a threat to the defenses. We won't have someone double, then need a triple to score them. We've got girls who are pretty fun to watch on the bases."
To complement that speed, SFA boasts some solid hitters who more than make up for what they may lack in power with consistency at the plate. Tullos, who batted .299 with 13 RBI last season, tops the list. Wells also expects solid production from Davis, Daley, Dahlquist and Wilson.
The projected increase in run support should help bolster the confidence of a young pitching staff. SFA lost veteran hurlers Nicole Carter and Traci Moore to graduation, and all four of this year's pitchers are underclassmen. The bullpen is led by sophomores Kari Hugie and Debra Boles. Wells added freshmen Magen Butler and Ashley Wilburn in the offseason.
But it was the acquisition of a new assistant coach that may have the biggest effect on this year's pitching staff. Wells hired Chris Watford this offseason to work with the Ladyjack pitchers. His credentials include six years coaching experience in both the high school and college ranks, as well as a lengthy and successful pitching career in men's fast-pitch softball. So far, Wells is pleased with the effect Watford is having on her program.
"Chris has only had a semester to work with our pitchers," the coach said. "From just watching their progressions so far, I can tell he's doing a fantastic job with them. They're stronger, and they're more consistent. When they throw in the bullpen, it's obvious they have great command of their pitches."
Hugie made 16 starts and appeared in 22 games last year. She pitched five complete games -- second-best on the team -- and finished the year with a 4.95 ERA. Hugie struggled with her control at times -- she led the team in walks issued with 44 -- but she also recorded 44 strikeouts, which ranked second on the team.
Boles appeared in 12 contests, earning the starting nod five times. She displayed great command of her pitches, issuing a team-low three walks in 33 and 2/3 innings pitched. Boles finished the year with 22 strikeouts and a 4.78 ERA.
"Kari and Debra both gained some experience last year," Wells said. "I expect them to really bring some leadership to the mound. They're realizing that, at this level, sometimes they're going to get hit, and it's important that they understand that, and they don't get down as much when that happens."
Butler and Wilburn both piled up the honors during their respective high school careers. Butler, an Ennis, Texas, native, was named district pitcher of the year all four seasons as a prep player and earned the Most Valuable Player award for her district in each of her last three campaigns. Wilburn wracked up four district MVP awards and was a four-time selection to the Texas Girls Coaches Association All-State squad.
"Butler and Wilburn really throw hard, and they can also hit in their position," Wells said.
The quartet of young guns will be taking aim at a sophomore backstop in Daley. She started all but two games behind the plate in her freshman season. Daley batted .227 and drove in 15 runs -- the third-best total on the team and tops among returning players. She recorded 32 assists and committed just eight errors in 242 chances for a fielding percentage of .967. Daley cut down 12 attempted base-stealers, second in the Southland Conference.
"Kim worked really hard this fall, as far as getting to know her pitchers and working with Coach Watford to find out what he expects out of her and them," Wells said. "She's really improved her skills behind the plate, which should help our pitchers during the games."
- SFA -