NewsExperienced MVNU Softball Team Ready to Begin New Season
written by Dave Parsons, Sports Information Director
MOUNT VERNON, Ohio - After posting its best season in eight years and advancing to the NAIA Region IX Tournament for the first time ever in 2003, the Mount Vernon Nazarene University women's fastpitch softball team returns an experienced squad for the 2004 campaign.
Head coach Jeana Howald and her MVNU squad finished third in the American Mideast Conference Central Division at 13-7 in 2003, swept Shawnee State University in an AMC Tournament best-of-three series, and advanced to the NAIA Region IX Tournament by blanking Mountain State (W.Va.) in the NAIA Region IX qualifying game.
Now, with both starting pitchers and six starting position players including the entire infield returning, the Lady Cougars want to build off last year's success in the new season.
"We have the potential to have another good season this year," said Howald, who enters her fifteenth season with a 322-234 record at her alma mater. "The returning players gained a lot of experience last year, and we added some quality recruits. We have a lot of versatility with several people who can play numerous positions. The team has been working hard, and they have a great attitude. It should be exciting to see what happens."
The success of the 2004 season will center around the continued development of the MVNU pitching staff. Junior right-hander Shannon Rachel and sophomore right-hander Heather Clark combined to form one of the best one-two punches in the AMC in 2003 as the pair posted a 1.74 earned run average with 10 shutouts as both players were named to the AMC Second Team. Rachel went 12-10 with a 1.59 ERA, while Clark posted a 17-10 record with a 1.88 ERA and seven shutouts in her college debut that included one perfect game. Freshman Danielle Herbert from Mount Vernon High School will also provide depth to the pitching rotation if needed.
The infield defense should once again be solid for the Lady Cougars with starters returning at every position after combining to set school records for putouts (1,002), assists (509), and fielding percentage (.952) a year ago. Senior Angie Smith returns to first base after setting a school record with 420 putouts in 2003 and committing only six errors in 454 chances. She also batted .271 with 19 RBI. She will be backed up by freshman Jennifer Meade from Reynoldsburg High School.
Senior Tiffany Simpson returns to play second base after being named to the AMC First Team in 2003 as she committed just 11 errors in 262 chances for a .958 fielding percentage as she was second on the team with 111 assists. She also batted .292 with 24 runs scored, six doubles, and a team-high seven triples. Freshman Laura Kot from Tallmadge High School will also see some time at second base, while senior Sara Schwartz could also log some innings there.
Sophomore Stephanie Johnson returns to anchor the infield at shortstop after a steller freshman season in 2003. Johnson was named the AMC Freshman of the Year after leading MVNU in nearly every offensive category as she batted .406 with 12 doubles, five triples, three home runs, 32 RBI, 32 runs scored, and 13 stolen bases. She also led the team with 125 assists.
Schwartz returns to third base after starting 27 games there in 2003 and committing just seven errors. She will be backed up by freshman Melody Blimline from Bellbrook High School and junior Brittany Stroop.
Junior Shara Dyer and Stroop both return to handle the catching duties after splitting time behind the plate in 2003. Dyer batted .262 with nine doubles and 13 RBI, while Stroop batted .250 with nine doubles and 24 RBI. The pair combined to throw out 11 baserunners. Sophomore Ashley Reeves also provides depth at the catcher position as well as being used as a pinch runner - a role in which she scored 11 runs in 2003.
The outfield is the biggest unknown for the Lady Cougars with only one starter returning in junior leftfielder Jackie Shively, who batted .269 with 20 runs scored and 17 RBI in 2003. Herbert appears to be the front runner for the centerfield job, while Kot gets the nod in rightfield. Meade and fellow freshmen Enid Tidyman from East Knox High School and Jennifer Osborne from Waverly High School, along with sophomore Megan Kunkle, will also see action and provide depth in the outfield.
"Barring injuries, our pitching staff and infield defense should be strong enough to keep us in games," said Howald. "The key will be the continued improvement of our hitters as they gain more confidence at the plate. We also have more team speed this year, so that should help us be more active on the basepaths."
MVNU will get its season under way on March 16 with a non-conference doubleheader at Seton Hill (Pa.) University. Then, the Lady Cougars will head south for their annual spring trip to the Orlando Rebel Games in Kissimmee, Florida. The team will play 10 games against NCAA III teams including 18th-ranked William Patterson (N.J.) College and Calvin (Mich.) College and the University of St. Thomas (Minn.), who both received votes in the preseason poll.
Upon returning north, MVNU will play non-conference games against Notre Dame College, Saint Vincent (Pa.) College, and Kenyon College.
The Lady Cougars will also compete for the AMC South Division title in what should prove to be a very competitive race with 25th-ranked Walsh University and Ohio Dominican University, who received votes in the preseason poll, being the preseason favorites. The University of Rio Grande, Shawnee State University, Cedarville University, Malone College, and Urbana University will also provide stiff competition in the race for the division title.
MVNU will also take part in the National Christian College Athletic Association East Region Tournament on April 23-24 at Geneva (Pa.) College as the Lady Cougars will look to qualify for the NCCAA National Tournament at Indiana Wesleyan University on April 29-30.
"Our division (AMC South) will be very competitive this year, and it will be a tough task for us to advance to the NAIA playoffs the way that we did last year," said Howald. "However, in addition to getting to the NAIA playoffs, the team really wants to qualify for the NCCAA National Tournament after missing it last year."