The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Sports

February 14, 2014

MSSU softball team returns veteran group

Lions open season today

With starters back at every position and two pitchers back, there’s no shortage of experience on Missouri Southern’s softball team.

“Cautiously optimistic,” Lions coach Bill Gray said, assessing his team’s season outlook. “We’ve been ninth (in the MIAA) the past couple of years, a game or two out of getting to the conference tournament.

“I feel good about what we have coming back. We have a nice veteran group around two talented sophomore pitchers. When they are ready to take the next step, we’ll take the next step. They look confident right now.”

The Lions’ season opener, delayed one week by a snowout at Southeastern Oklahoma State, comes this weekend in Bentonville, Ark., at the Eight-State Classic hosted by Arkansas-Monticello. A total of 29 teams are in the field.

The Lions face the Illinois-Springfield Prairie Stars at 11:30 a.m. today and Quincy at 3:30 this afternoon.

The Lions play two more games on Saturday and Sunday — Southern Nazarene and Ouachita Baptist on Saturday afternoon and William Jewell and Southwestern Oklahoma State on Sunday.

Haley Kinnison and Sarah Williams are the Lions’ two sophomore pitchers. Kinnison was 6-5 last year with a 3.24 earned run average, 95 strikeouts and 69 walks in 99 innings. Williams’ numbers: 9-6 record, 2.55 ERA, 47 strikeouts and 49 walks in 98 innings.

“As freshmen, we knew last year would have its ups and downs,” Gray said. “They beat the No. 14 team, the No. 8 team and the eventual national champion (Central Oklahoma), and at times they looked like freshmen. This year you can see they are physically stronger, their pitches move a little more ... and the mental aspect will make the difference.”

The Lions return four seniors — first baseman Dawn Grass, third baseman Brooklyn Farrell, left fielder Chloe Brown and right fielder Shelby Romines.

Romines led the Lions last year with a .365 batting average, seven home runs and 40 runs batted in to earn all-conference honors. Grass, a fifth-year senior and the Lions’ record holder with 22 career homers, had six homers, 26 RBI and a .279 average last season.

“Dawn has been here almost as long as I have,” said Gray, who is starting his sixth season. “She was part of my first real recruiting class. It will be weird next year writing the lineup without her in it.

“Shelby was our top offensive player last year. She will see time at first base early in the season to help keep Dawn healthy.”

Farrell ranked second on the team with her .339 average with three homers and 24 RBI. Brown batted .256 and drove in 17 runs.

“Brooklyn gives us pop from the left side of the plate and plays a solid third base,” Gray said. “Chloe was a part-time starter the last couple of years. She earned the role late last year, won the role last fall in competition and has continued her good play in the preseason.”

Other veterans include junior second baseman Brooke Swadley, sophomore shortstop Michala Wood and sophomore center fielder Alana Hester.

Hester batted .306 and led he team with 41 runs scored and 25 stole bases from the leadoff spot. Swadley hit .278, and Wood batted .291 and had only nine errors at shortstop as a freshman.

Gray plans to platoon catchers Kathryn Goins, a junior who started 38 games last year, and Dru Coleman, a sophomore. Rachel Harding also saw action at catcher as well as other positions.

Four freshmen complete the roster — pitcher-utility player Shelby Mitchell, outfielder Jessica Castoe, infielder Myranda Stewart and catcher Dakoda Owings.

Owings will be redshirted after undergoing shoulder surgery this week. Stewart is also sidelined with a fractured skull after falling on the ice at her home in Owasso, Okla.

The Lions have a new assistant coach who’s certainly no stranger to the area — former Webb City and Missouri Tigers standout Nicole Hudson.

“She’s learning how we do things here, and I’m picking her brain and learning from her experiences,” Gray said. “She’s done a great job. The kids pay attention and listen because they know what she’s done in the past.”

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