Bears have high expectations for 2007 with six returning starters
The 2007 Missouri State softball team will feature a veteran core of six returning starters, mixed in with eight newcomers and will again have high expectations after winning the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament and setting a school record with 40 wins in 2006.
The 2006 team finished 40-17, including an 18-4 league mark to finish second in the regular season standings. A three-game sweep in the MVC Tournament captured the Bears’ first conference tournament title and NCAA Tournament berth since 1998. The Bears lose four multi-year starters from last year’s squad, but according to head coach Holly Hesse, the 2007 Bears will not lower their standard of success.
"Every season, we strive to improve on the best we’ve done in the history of the program," said Hesse. "Last season we achieved the goal with 40 wins and set the bar very high, but it continues to be our goal this season."
If the Bears repeat as conference tournament champions in 2007, they will do so in a new eight team, single-elimination MVC Tournament format that has changed from the previous six team, double-elimination version.
The 2007 team returns only three seniors in four-year starter Katie Martin, two-year starter Whitney Peyton, and junior college transfer Courtney Owens. Unfortunately, Peyton will miss the 2007 season with an injury, but she will remain in a major leadership role according to Hesse.
"It is very unfortunate for Whitney and the team, but she will find other meaningful ways to contribute to this year’s success," says Hesse.
Martin has been a mainstay in the Bears’ lineup since her freshman season, and will be looked on for leadership.
"Katie is a four-year starter, who will hit leadoff and play centerfield," said Hesse. "She will have a strong leadership role this season."
Owens will compete for a starting outfield spot after recovering from an injury of her own last spring and this fall. Also returning are 2006 starters Melissa Porche at pitcher, Michelle Armentrout at third base, shortstop and first baseman Jessie Smith, and catchers Jen Carr and Lacie Ballard.
"Melissa, Michelle, and Jessie are impact players that will be part of the nucleus of our team," said Hesse.
The Bears lose MVC Player of the Year Samantha Fleeman at first base and starting pitcher and MVC Tournament MVP Shannon Buslepp, along with speedy outfielder Sara Cole and the school’s career assists leader, shortstop Alicia Jager, from last year’s record-setting team.
"It’s impossible to replace what the four seniors did for our team, as they were major contributors to our outstanding success," said Hesse.
However, Fleeman and Buslepp have not gone far, as both will be around the team in a coaching capacity. Fleeman will work with the hitters, infielders, and outfielders while Buslepp will help with the team’s pitchers and hitters.
With the loss of two of the team’s three pitchers from last season, Porche will step into the ace role, with true freshmen Megan Ramsey and Lauren McGinley asked to make significant contributions.
"The freshmen pitchers will need to step up from the start," said Hesse. "They looked very good this fall, and we feel confident with them on the mound."
With two corner outfield spots up for grabs, the three weeks of practice before the Bears’ season-opener on Feb. 10 at the Central Arkansas Lead-Off Tournament will be very important in determining the look of the 2007 squad.
The Pitching Staff
With the loss of 18-game winner Buslepp and part-time starter Fleeman, who had the MVC’s second-lowest ERA in 2006, pitching would seem to be a question mark. However, the Bears return a 17-game winner in Porche, who led the nation last season with seven saves. Ramsey and McGinley have been through the fall season, easing the transition to Division I softball.
"We feel very good about our pitching staff going into the season," said Hesse. "Melissa was a big part of our success last season and will be one of the top two pitchers in the MVC. She has the mentality of a pitcher and wants the ball, whether it be starting or in relief. We are very comfortable with the team playing behind Melissa, and we expect her to dominate."
"Megan and Lauren compliment each other well," stated Hesse. "They have all the pitches and will consistently give the team a chance to win as freshmen."
Behind the Plate
The Bears return two very capable players behind the plate in Carr and Ballard. Carr started 35 games last season as a freshman, with Ballard starting the other 23, and Ballard has made 41 starts in her first two season with the program.
"Both catchers are fundamentally sound and will be the field generals of this team," said Hesse. "Jen and Lacie both do a great job working with the pitching staff, calling a great game, and providing support on the infield."
With the season-ending injury to Peyton, the Bears will need to fill three spots on the infield in 2007. The lone returning starter is Armentrout, who will become a three-year starter at third base.
"Michelle has been an impact player for us, and will continue to be," said Hesse.
The junior batted .246 with 41 hits, nine doubles, and five home runs last season, and is the team’s leading returner in the RBI department from last season, with 31. Armentrout also brings a solid glove to the hot corner, as she recorded a .940 fielding percentage in 2006 and her 138 assists were second-most in the MVC and the leading total for a returning player.
"Third base is a tough position to play and it is nice to have stability there," said Hesse. "The position requires quick reaction time, and Michelle has that with both her glove and feet."
Backing up Armentrout at third base will be junior college transfer Jana Shewmaker.
Vying to replace Peyton at second base will be two-year backup Michelle Heinrichs and freshman Dusti Foster. Spring practice will play a major factor in determining the starter, as the coaches will be looking for one main quality in the potential starter.
"We want to see consistency," said Hesse. "Second base is a very important position in college softball, and we want to have continuity on the infield."
At shortstop, the likely replacement for Jager will be sophomore Jessie Smith, who split time last season between right field and first base.
"Jessie is so athletic and so versatile that we see no problems with the transition to shortstop," said Hesse. "She’s played the position before prior to coming here, so it is not a new position to her."
Smith will also see action at first base, depending on the pitching matchup, meaning junior college transfer Ashley Arbon will likely see her name on the lineup card occasionally throughout the season. Arbon was a two-year starter at Garden City Community College, where she tied single-season records with 12 home runs and six triples, and will bring a strong arm to the position.
At first base, the favorite to get the nod will be McGinley, when she is not on the mound.
"Lauren did a nice job this fall at first base," said Hesse. "She has a nice swing and will help out offensively and defensively. She can contribute in many different ways."
The biggest unknown heading into the 2007 season will be the outfield. Martin will make the move from leftfield to centerfield, leaving the two corner positions up for grabs among five inexperienced, but capable, players. The five players competing for the two spots comes from a group of the senior Owens, sophomore Brooke Kempker, and three newcomers; Western Illinois transfer Elysha Swider, junior college transfer Carrie Roberson, and freshman Jodie Shead.
Martin has already started 154 games in her career with the Bears, and will likely surpass 100 career hits, 20 doubles, and 75 runs scored in 2007. She also brings a reliable glove to the outfield, with only four errors in the past two seasons, including a .984 fielding percentage in 2006.
The transition to centerfield for Martin should be an easy one according to Hesse.
"Katie gets a great jump on the ball and has a very good game sense," said Hesse. "She also has proven herself at the plate."
Owens returns to the mix after missing the fall season, and possesses the strongest arm on the team according to Hesse. Kempker saw action in 11 games last season as a reserve, and took only eight at bats in those games. Swider totaled 21 hits, six doubles, and seven RBIs in 93 at bats last season for Western Illinois, where she started 29 games and played in 41. Roberson batted .404 with nine triples, six homers, and 21 stolen bases last season for East Central College. Roberson is likely the fastest player on the team, according to Hesse, and has the ability to steal 30 bases. Shead is the lone freshman in the mix, and she too, brings speed to the table and a needed lefthanded bat.
"The starters at the two corner spots will come down to their success at the plate," according to Hesse. "All five are capable of playing the outfield, so whoever can make the biggest contribution at the plate will play."
Missouri State hit .252 as a team in 2006, up 25 points from the previous season. With the powerful bats of Fleeman and Buslepp no longer in the three and four spots in the lineup and Cole no longer in the leadoff spot, the Bears will look to a combination of returners and newcomers to make up for the lost production. The first four spots in the 2007 lineup will likely be filled with returners, as Martin, Smith, Armentrout, and Porche are all proven at the plate.
The remaining portion of the lineup will be a question mark leading up to the season opener. McGinley will be asked to step up, as will the winners of the two outfield corner spots. Hesse pointed out that newcomers Foster and Swider hit well during the fall and the prospects for a potent lineup are in place.
"We have some question marks offensively, but there is a lot of potential," said Hesse.
The Bears’ 2007 schedule will feature games against six NCAA Tournament teams from a season ago, including preseason ninth-ranked Louisiana State. Missouri State will also face five teams for the first time in 2007.
"I like having a lot of new teams on the schedule," said Hesse. "And, anytime you play a top-10 team like LSU early in the season, it gives you a chance to see how you stack up against the best."
The team will play the first three weekends away from home, starting with the season-opening Central Arkansas Lead-Off Tournament, Feb. 10-12, in Conway, Ark. The following weekend, Feb. 16-18, the Bears will face stiff competition at the Crowne Plaza Classic in Houston, Texas, where they will face LSU and 2006 NCAA tourney team Indiana. On Feb. 23-25, the Bears will travel to the Holiday Inn Select Tulsa Festival hosted by the Golden Hurricane, who were an NCAA Tournament team last spring.
Missouri State’s home opener will take place Feb. 28, when the Bears play a doubleheader against Oklahoma State of the Big 12 Conference.
"Anytime you can play someone from the SEC, Big 10, or Big 12, it is a great opportunity to see what kind of team we have compared to the bigger conferences," said Hesse.
The Bears will open March with the Saint Louis University Benefit for Breast Cancer to determine Division I supremacy in the state, as MSU will take on Saint Louis, Southeast Missouri State, and Missouri-Kansas City. The tournament showcases softball talent in Missouri, and also raises money to help fight breast cancer.
After midweek home games against UMKC and North Dakota State, March 7 and 13, respectively, the Bears will open Missouri Valley Conference play at home against Creighton on March 17-18. A home doubleheader against 2006 NCAA tourney qualifier Kansas on March 28 is sandwiched between MVC road tilts at Wichita State and Bradley, and home contests against Evansville, Wichita State, and Northern Iowa. The Bears will finish with 11 of the final 14 games on the road, starting with Southern Illinois and Indiana State weekend conference series. A midweek doubleheader at Tulsa precedes the final home series of the season, April 28-29, against Drake, followed by a trip to 2006 regular season champion Illinois State to conclude the regular season.
For the second consecutive season, three Missouri Valley teams participated in the NCAA Tournament last year. Tournament champion Missouri State was joined by at-large selections Southern Illinois and Illinois State.
"Two at-large bids last year says a lot about the strength of softball in the league," commented Hesse.
The three teams that advanced to postseason play look to be the frontrunners again in 2007. However, the strength of the league from top to bottom is better every season, according to Hesse.
"Softball in this league has become almost as competitive as men’s basketball," said Hesse. "There really aren’t any easy conference games anymore. Every team should be improved from last year."
A new single-elimination tournament format awaits the MVC’s top eight teams this season, changed from the previous six team, double-elimination play used in the past. The format automatically places the regular season’s top two teams in the semifinals, and the third and fourth-place teams in the quarterfinals. This year’s tournament will take place May 10-12, in Normal, Ill.
"Teams are really rewarded for having a good conference record with the new format," said Hesse.