By Jim Henry
Globe Sports Editor
Missouri Southern softball coach Bill Gray is cautiously optimistic as the Lions open their season this weekend.
“I’ve had high hopes the last couple of years, but injuries and other things set us back,” he said. “Everything is looking good on paper right now. We have more talent than we’ve had in the last five years. The kids right now have the right attitude and want to do what it takes to win.”
The Lions travel to Durant, Okla., this weekend to play six Central Region crossover games. They play doubleheaders the next three days, beginning today with contests against Ouachita Baptist at noon and Arkansas Tech at 4 p.m.
The Lions will play Drury and Northeastern State on Saturday afternoon and Arkansas-Monticello and Henderson State on Sunday afternoon.
The Lions, who finished 16-35 last season and 5-15 in MIAA games, have 20 on the roster — 10 returning players and 10 newcomers. But two veterans — pitcher Kayce Moore and backup catcher Dru Coleman — had shoulder surgery during Christmas break. Coleman, who made 17 starts last season, might be redshirted, Gray said, and Moore hopes to return to make a few starts late in her senior season.
Moore went 3-12 last season with a 6.66 earned run average. Also back are Haley Pypes (10-10, 4.21 ERA) and Hannah Cooke (3-12, 6.81 ERA). Pypes had the most work last season and averaged almost a walk and a strikeout per inning — 92 walks and 108 strikeouts in 119.2 innings.
The Lions added two freshmen pitchers who will make a start this weekend — Haley Kinnison from Lee’s Summit North High School and Sarah Williams from Timberland High School in Wentzville.
Kennison is second at Lee’s Summit North in career victories (56) and strikeouts (594), and she was named most valuable player in the 2012 Border Battle as Missouri beat Kansas in a best-of-3 series. Williams fanned a school-record 138 batters last season.
“Pitching hindered us last year, but this year we like like it could be a strength,” Gray said. “The biggest thing was the hiring of Jenna Smart (as pitching coach). The kids have bought into her. They understand that she played at the Division II level (at Delta State, Miss.) and knows what she’s talking about.”
The Lions figure to have more power in their lineup with the return of first baseman Dawn Grass, who missed last season with an ankle injury. She hit nine home runs and drove in 30 runs in 2011, and her 18 career homers are two shy of the school record.
Joining Grass on the infield will be sophomore Brooke Swadley at second base, freshman Michala Wood at shortstop and junior Brooklyn Farrell or freshman Lexie Gardner at third base.
Swadley batted .202 while playing third base most of last season, but middle infield is her more natural position. Farrell also saw action at third and batted .255.
Shelby Romines, who played first base in Grass’ absence last season, will start in right field. A junior, Romines was second on the team with a .296 average and 23 runs batted in.
Freshman Alana Hester from Eureka High School in the St. Louis area moves into center field and the leadoff spot in the lineup.
“She gets down the line in a hurry,” Gray said. “We’ve said all spring a walk is going to be a double because she’s going to be moving.”
Candidates in left field include Chloe Brown, Brooke Smith and Rachel Harding.
Kathryn Goins, a transfer from Seminole State, will be the starting catcher. She threw out 42-of-67 runners attempting to steal during her career at Van Buren (Ark.) High School.
Sara Stearns, a freshman from Pierce City, will be the designated hitter and bat fifth behind Grass. Stearns’ eye-popping statistics last season — .495 average with 17 doubles, seven triples, nine home runs and 48 RBI.
“We have more power,” Gray said, “but at the same time we’ve worked all fall and spring at being more aggressive on the basepaths.
“We had our home run derby on Monday. The wind was blowing in and it was deep in center — 225 feet. We only hit four homers, but what the kids didn’t realize was they were crushing the ball gap to gap. We one-hopped the 225 fence I don’t know how many times. We’re not going to sit back and wait for the long ball, but we’ll be able to hit it.”