Clarksville, Ark.-Second-year University of the Ozarks Head Softball Coach Laurie Adkins expects to see improvement from her team this season with seven starters back and the influx of several talented freshmen.
The 2012 Lady Eagles return five of their top six hitters and nearly 60 percent of their runs scored. However, it is the squad’s team-first attitude that has impressed Adkins the most. She believes her team has gelled and has bought into the concept that the team always comes first.
“Our biggest strength is we are all on the same page,” said Adkins. “We are a team. Even though we are young, the team gels well. We have that quality. We are building together and going in the same direction. We are all thinking alike.”
A trio of upperclassmen are expected to continue their offensive production at the plate. Senior first baseman Kelsey Stephens led the team in batting (.375), RBI (22) and slugging percentage (.490). Junior leftfielder Ali Mathis finished second on the team in batting (.366), but was the team-leader in hits (45), total bases (56) and stolen bases (9). Senior centerfielder Colbey Russo recorded 23 hits and 10 RBI a year ago.
“Kelsey has all the talent in the world to be a double digit home run hitter,” said Adkins. “Ali is a dynamic player who was All-Conference last season. Colbey is a great contact hitter and I think we will see production out of her.”
Ozarks must improve its overall performance at the plate in order to compete in the toughest NCAA III conference in the nation. The Lady Eagles hit .257 as a team a year ago.
“Offensively, I am still looking for the break-out hitter,” said Adkins. “We will have to piece hits together as a team. The mentality that we will not get a hit is too prevalent. We have the physical ability, but we need to believe in ourselves.”
The entire starting outfield is back. Sophomore Molly Bowman joins Mathis and Russo to complete a solid defensive unit.
“Ali gives it her all out there,” said Adkins. “She is not afraid to sacrifice her body to make a play. Colbey is an anchor in center field. She can go back to the fence and rob hits. Molly is in the right field spot. The outfielders work really well together. Between the three of them we don’t have any holes in the outfield.”
Highly-decorated freshman pitcher Amber Rollins will lead the pitching staff. Rollins led Searcy High School to a state championship last season. Sophomore Tabitha Porter is back after striking out 40 a year ago.
“I think our pitching is in hand,” said Adkins. “It will be there. Amber is the first one out there to work out. Porter can strike people out. She can be difficult to hit. But it takes a staff to succeed.”
The catcher duties could fall to freshman Reagan Littlefield and a pair of returning sophomores. Casey Mays and Heather Roberts can both play behind the plate.
“There is good competition there,” said Adkins. “But I think Reagan will be our number one. She manages the team real well. Casey can play a number of positions including behind the plate. Heather could see time at catcher and at third base. She has better control at the plate.”
Mays started in 37 games and hit .274 with 12 RBI while Roberts started 31 times and posted a .244 average.
The infield is experienced and is led by Stephens at first base. While second base and third base haven’t been solidified, there are a number of possibilities for Adkins. Second base could fall to Arel Ferguson or Mays. Roberts and Mays can also play third base. Freshman Brittany Wagnon is likely to start at shortstop. Freshman Lauren Cordrey will be thrown into the mix in the middle infield.
“Kelsey is a team leader,” said Adkins. “She is savvy and makes good decisions on the field. Tabitha and Meghan Smith can play first. Brittany is a talented individual with a rocket arm. She will be our shortstop. Arel can play in the middle infield. I expect to see her play some second base.”
Ozarks also added assistant coach Monty Littlefield to the coaching staff. According to Adkins, Littlefield has had a major impact on the squad. But things are never easy in the highly-respected American Southwest Conference. The Lady Eagles took their lumps in 2011, finishing with a 7-33 overall record and a 1-23 conference mark.
“Last year we made some progress,” said Adkins. “It’s hard to see progress without seeing wins, but it was there. We need to break through that mental barrier. We need to stay positive in our thoughts as we are growing and building, yet at the same time demand a higher level of excellence. It is a mentality and we will be there. There is no other option.”
Ozarks opens the season in Irving, Texas, at the University of the Dallas Tournament February 25-26.