Four NCAA Div. III championships
PELLA--In the predawn hours of most February mornings, well before the 11th-ranked Central College softball team opens a fiercely competitive schedule in the spring sunshine and dirt fields of Georgia and Arizona, key lineup questions must be resolved on the chilly floor of H.S. Kuyper Fieldhouse.
The Dutch completed fall workouts with uncertainty remaining at some positions. Six starters, including a pair of all-America honorees, are back from last year’s 36-10 club which made the program’s 24th NCAA Division III tournament appearance and captured the Iowa Conference tournament crown. But coach George Wares, who became the winningest coach in Division III history in part by relying on speed and defense, has some concerns about both areas heading into 2013.
“Defense, that’s a question,” he said. “We were so strong up the middle last year. Now we have (catcher) Caitlyn Meyer coming off surgery and we’ve lost tremendous defensive players at second base and in center field. Can we be that good again? Yes, on paper, but we’re not where we need to be yet.”
Team speed will be impacted by the position battles.
“More of our speed will probably have to come in the pinch-running mode than from our lineup,” Wares said. “We still want to be aggressive, but we’ll have to do it in different ways.”
Conversely, while the Dutch have had more dominant pitchers in the past, even Central’s four national championship teams didn’t have the depth of this year’s staff. Six hurlers are capable of throwing varsity innings.
“On paper we’re probably as strong as we’ve been in a while,” he said.
Wares, who savors a challenge, has pieced together a daunting one in this year’s power-packed lineup of foes. The slate opens with a jolt, featuring East Texas Baptist and No. 15 Ohio Northern on day one of the NFCA Division III Leadoff Classic in Columbus, Ga. March 8. Ohio Northern made the eight-team national finals last year.
“We’ll face two quality programs right away,” Wares said. “It’s exciting. The players are looking forward to playing there.”
Central plays six games against elite opponents in the three-day classic, then flies to Tucson, Ariz. the following morning for 10 more games in five days. Later the Dutch tackle traditional contenders Washington-St. Louis (Mo.), Augustana (Ill.), No. 7 Illinois Wesleyan and No. 18 St. Thomas (Minn.) to highlight the remainder of the non-conference slate while the typically intense Iowa Conference race will not be a source of relief.
Having plenty of pitching arms available will help, particularly as the innings stack up on the spring break trip.
“I don’t think we’ll take six pitchers but there’s a pretty good chance we’ll take five,” Wares said. “And with 16 games in 10 days, all five will probably get some innings.”
The team offense could be better than last year’s, Wares said. But he’s also thinking a lot about intangibles.
“If I have one question other than what I’ve already mentioned, it’s, ‘Where’s the leadership going to come from?,’” he said. We’ve got some relatively quiet players. Someone’s going to have to come out of their shell a little bit and be more vocal. Who’s going to be that one who takes charge in the huddle after the coach leaves? It can’t be the coaches all the time. Leadership has to come from the players as well.”
Wares has compiled a 945-313-3 record (.750) in 28 seasons with 12 national top-five finishes and is a member of the NFCA Hall of Fame.
There is no shortage of options in the circle, but the pitching staff starts with its three veterans: senior Rhianna Fleetwood, junior Brie Haycraft and sophomore Mallory Schulenberg.
Fleetwood enjoyed a breakout season, earning first-team all-conference and second-team all-region recognition. She posted a 16-4 record with a 1.26 earned run average. The Dutch rode her arm to a conference tournament title as she threw 21 scoreless innings, including 14 in one day, and was named the Division III player of the week.
“We felt she showed what she could do in the conference tournament,” Wares said. “We hope she takes that and runs with it. A big thing for her is just believing how good she can be. And what’s good for her and the others this year is that she doesn’t have to do it by herself.”
Haycraft was 10-6 with a 2.59 ERA despite pitching through injury down the stretch.
“Brie, when she’s on, is as good as anyone,” Wares said. “Unfortunately, she had a lot of health issues that kept hurting her. Hopefully this year we can take more precautions and try to get her to the point where she’s strong at the end of the season. That hasn’t been the case for her in her first two years.”
Schulenberg’s emergence was stunning. After winning just three games in her senior year of high school, she was ticketed for a spot on the junior varsity, but through diligent effort and some guidance from pitching coach Gary Grimes, posted a surprising 10-0 record with a team-low 1.22 ERA, limiting foes to a .218 batting average. Yet Wares thinks much of her ability is still untapped.
“We can’t use the word ‘sleeper’ anymore with Mallory,” Wares said. “She’s working on adding another pitch, which would make her a legitimate strikeout pitcher.”
That trio is joined by three promising rookies. Kelsey Stender is coming off an outstanding high school career at Belle Plaine, Minn.
“We think Kelsey is going to be a very good pitcher for us,” Wares said. “And she’s valuable in other ways. We can use her in the outfield or at first base and she can do some things with the bat as a slapper.”
Courtney Meyer of Newton, younger sister of Caitlyn, is also capable.
“In other years, she could be pitching a lot,” Wares said. “She can play some elsewhere if needed and can definitely help us offensively. She hasn’t played an inning yet, but she’s probably one of our best hitters.”
Wares has high hopes for Trisha Smith of New Hampton, as well.
“Trish is a quality pitcher,” he said. “A lot of teams would love to have her.”
Each of the hurlers has some unique qualities and Wares is fond of making pitching changes to get favorable match-ups, but he said there’s also value in letting an ace rise to the top.
“There are differences in all these pitchers,” he said. “But it’s a tough one. Sometimes you just like to have a pitcher like Rhianna was in the conference tournament, who wants to take control and finish the game.
“Even though we have depth, it would be nice to have someone who makes it hard for us to put anybody else in.”
Wares is quick to credit Grimes for his instruction.
“Gary is very good at getting out of pitchers not what he wants, but what we need,” he said. “With the work he’s done, I think we’ll have more ability to strike people out this year, which is important with the level of competition we face.”
Senior catcher Caitlyn Meyer’s return is crucial to the Dutch as she comes back from two significant injuries. Meyer’s 2012 season was cut short but she still drove in 24 runs in 27 games while hitting .361 for the second straight year and belted three homers. She’s even more valuable defensively.
“Caitlyn’s been very diligent with her rehab,” Wares said. “By the time we play, I think she’ll be fine. She’s excited. You can see she’s a player even more appreciative of the opportunity to play. You combine her desire with her leadership and ability and she can be an all-America-type player. The pitchers like throwing to her and we need her healthy.”
The Dutch were fortunate last year as Kyrie Hale stepped in to replace Meyer.
“What we did after losing Caitlyn was incredible,” Wares said. “That shows how well Kyrie responded.”
But Hale has graduated, as has backup Jess Edler. That leaves sophomore Dana Van Renterghem and senior Ashley Phipps next in line, along with freshman Abby Stier.
“The upside to Caitlyn’s time off is we did develop some more depth in the fall,” Wares said. “Dana was a pleasant surprise. She’s very intelligent, handles the pitchers well and has the ability to throw the ball. She just needs to develop more confidence.
“Ashley most likely will be the bullpen catcher,” he said. “Coach Grimes is very comfortable with her, which is important in communicating with us.”
The Dutch could also look at sophomore Katie Canney, a transfer from Wartburg College, although she’ll likely focus elsewhere on the field.
Junior Jordan Overland took over at first base last year when Hale moved following Meyer’s injury. She hit .314 and started 19 games, scoring 34 runs and stealing 14 bases. Now she’s bidding to keep the job.
“Jordan will get the first opportunity,” Wares said. “The fall season was a bit of a roller coaster for her compared to last year when she just took the position and ran with it. She responded well then. Her performance in the conference tournament was very good. She’s good defensively and has developed as a slapper.”
But Wares could use first base as a way to get a bigger bat in the lineup, either from Courtney Meyer or sophomore Karlee Rock. Last year Rock gave the Dutch a big lift as a pinch-hitter, batting .355 in 31 at-bats with a homer and nine RBIs.
Canney, who started at shortstop as a freshman at Wartburg and won the team’s rookie of the year award after hitting .360 with 23 RBIs and two homers, could be used at first base as well. Stender is also an option, as are Fleetwood and Stier.
“It’s wide open,” Wares said.
There’s also a big hole at second base, where Angela Davis was a four-time first-team all-conference pick and a three-time all-region honoree.
“It’s a big question,” Wares said. “People don’t realize how important that position is for us. We were very fortunate to have Angela Davis the last four years.”
Wares wants to try sophomore Abbey Strajack, who earned third-team all-America honors as a designated player, but was a high school shortstop. She hit a team-high .382 with 39 runs and 13 stolen bases.
“Abbey will get a very serious look because of her high school experience and also because she’s one of the best leadoff hitters we’ve had in a while,” Wares said. “It’s just a question of her relaxing and making the routine plays. She’s good enough to do that.”
Yet Wares wants to look at other options. Junior Chelsea Greiner, who stole 13 bases and scored 20 runs as a pinch-runner last year, has two years of experience as a backup.
“Chelsea’s done just about everything she’s been asked to do,” he said.
Canney could also be in the mix, as could sophomore Kallie Schive, although Schive may spend more time in the outfield. Freshman candidates include Brooklyn Sumovich of Waverly, Neb. and Jamie Donaldson of Springville.
There are fewer worries at shortstop, where junior Annie Sarcone was a second-team all-America pick and was the conference position player of the year. She blasted nine home runs, tying a school record, while knocking in 46 runs, two shy of the school mark. Sarcone is already tied for third on the career home runs chart with 15 in two seasons. She hit .374 with a .676 slugging percentage.
“Annie’s got the capability of being even better than she’s shown,” Wares said. “We’d like to get more out of her leadership ability, which is still somewhat untapped. She showed some of that in the fall.”
Strajack would likely be the top choice if a replacement was needed. Greiner and Donaldson can also play the position.
Central is in good shape at third base as well, where sophomore Whitney Sowers progressed even faster than anticipated as a freshman. She hit .354 with four homers and 23 RBIs, while also displaying the poise and intensity Wares looks for.
“She already brings a lot of leadership to the infield,” Wares said. “She has the ability to just go out and play. She gets it done at the plate and works on getting better. She’s a very good two-strike hitter. Keeping her healthy is very important.
“Not too many teams have a better left side than we do with Whitney and Annie.”
Courtney Meyer, Donaldson and Canney are other options at third.
Central ran a bit of an offensive-defensive platoon in left field last year and could do so again, although all-America honoree Rachael Everingham has graduated. Courtney Meyer could provide the offense but is also a capable defender, Wares said. However, junior Lexi Cessna and sophomore Shannon Coulson bring steady gloves. Stender is also worth a look, as is speedy sophomore Paige Heesch, who possesses one of the outfield’s better arms.
“It very well could be a position we fill by committee,” Wares said.
Center field is also open as one of the team’s best defenders in recent years, Holly Von Fumetti, has graduated. Senior Heidi Reburn, was a part-time player in left field last year while otherwise serving as an elite pinch-runner. She stole 19 bases and scored 22 runs last season. She has the tools to take over in center.
“We’re going to give Heidi every shot,” Wares said. “She’s very quick. Her ability to run down balls could bail out our pitchers.”
Heesch will also contend.
“Paige has the same ability to run down balls and has a stronger arm,” Wares said. “It depends on what we do in left.”
Junior Taylor Williams offers some offensive pop, while Cessna could handle the position as well.
An alternative would be to move senior right fielder Emily Te Brink to center, but Wares likes keeping her in right, where she’s started the past three years. She was a third-team all-region pick last season, hitting .313 with a team-high 21 stolen bases and 20 runs scored.
“Emily just needs to become more consistent, especially offensively,” Wares said. “Her confidence level is close to a 10 defensively. But offensively her confidence is probably at a seven and after one strikeout she goes to about a four, even though she’s a talented hitter. If she can put the ball in play more, she can use her speed. On defense, her arm is second to none. That can be pretty valuable.”
Coulson and Schive can serve as backups.
Wares will fill the other lineup spots before looking at the designated player position. Strajack will give up the DP role if she starts at second base but Courtney Meyer and Rock could shine.
“Courtney and Karlee have a chance to become big-time college hitters,” Wares said. “Our goal is to get one of those two into the DP spot.”
Both are also obvious possibilities as pinch-hitters, a role Rock handled at key times as a freshman.
“That’s been a pretty big spot for us,” Wares said.
The pinch-runner role may take on even greater importance if the Dutch have less speed in the starting lineup. Central dominated opponents on the basepaths once again last year, 127-17, and Wares doesn’t want to back off.
If Reburn doesn’t start in the outfield, she’s an easy choice. Otherwise, Greiner is the most experienced pinch-runner. Heesch shows promise as does Donaldson, while Coulson, Stender and Schive fill out the ranks.
Defending conference champion Luther is ranked No. 3 in the preseason and will likely wear the favorite’s tag in an increasingly balanced league race.
“One reason I think the Iowa Conference is the best in the country is the middle and bottom of the league are so good,” he said. “Obviously teams like Linfield, St. Thomas and Texas-Tyler could contend anywhere. But when you get to the fourth- or fifth-place teams, that’s where our league is so tough.
“I think we’ll be in the mix. I’ll be disappointed if we’re not. You’ve got to split with the right teams and sweep the others.”
And the NCAA road has never been rockier.
“Without question,” Wares said. “There are about 400 Division III teams that play softball. Primarily looking at teams from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and the West, the quality of those programs has really taken off. It’s important that the rest of us continue to improve ourselves.”