Clarksville, Ark.-The 2003 U of O Lady Eagles softball team combines a talented nucleus of returning offensive players and the momentum built from last season's surge at the end of year.
"There were a lot of good things that happened for us last season," said head coach Jon Janssen, who is beginning his third year as head coach. "Starting off 9-0 and finishing the season strong with seven wins in a row was a big boost for our confidence and has given us momentum coming into the season. We will still be a very young. We only have one senior and one junior that will be starting and the rest will be sophomores and freshmen." Offensively the Lady Eagles were one of the top teams in the conference. The 2002 squad, which had a 22-18 overall record and 10-14 conference record, finished second in the American Southwest Conference in batting (.329), on-base percentage (.396), slugging percentage (.427), hits (335) and RBI (199). The Lady Eagles led the league in doubles with 62. Eight players hit .300 or better and both Leigh Thompson and Regan Brown ranked in the top five in batting average, with Thompson winning the batting title last season after hitting .443. Few players in the league may have had a more dominating performance last season than Thompson. Thompson, who was the only Ozarks’ player named to the All-ASC team last year, earned Newcomer of the Year honors from her third base position. Thompson, from Harrison, led the conference in doubles (16) while finishing second in slugging percentage (.615), total bases (75) and hits (54) and third in RBI (37) and on-base percentage (.477). "There may be a few players in the conference that are as good as hitters that she is, but one of the things that separates her and other players is her patience at the plate. She has an eye for the pitch she wants to hit. She doesn’t let pitchers dictate what pitch they want her to hit, she dictates that herself. She had very few strikeouts last season." The offense starts around leadoff hitter Regan Brown. Brown, a sophomore shortstop from Rogers who earned ASC All-East Division honorable mention, finished fifth in the conference in batting (.398) and fourth in on-base percentage (.464). Brown led the team in walks (14) and had 26 RBI, which was second-best on the team. Shannon Rainbolt, a sophomore outfielder from Vilonia, and Kelly Bennett, a sophomore catcher from Bryant, also had strong offensive performances last year. Both Rainbolt and Bennett received ASC All-East Division honorable mention. Rainbolt hit .320 and recorded 35 runs, third-best in the conference, while Bennett provides some pop to the lineup having led the team with two homeruns and ranking third on the squad in RBI (25). Bennett also hit .343 and committed only two errors from behind the plate. Sarah Fielder and Kayci Rockwell, who each hit over .300 last season, provide additional talent in the infield. The Lady Eagles will also have the services of Jamie Johnson, who is returning from a knee injury. Johnson was named ASC All-East honorable mention in 2001 as a short stop. "Offensively we got the job done by scoring the runs that we needed to," said Janssen. "Definitely, our pitching depth and our defensive game were both facets that we needed to address and I feel like we’ve done that with our recruiting class. We’re still not where we need to be, but we are a lot stronger in both areas than we were last year. The girls realize that they have got to get the job done defensively no matter how many players we have with high batting averages. If the fielding percentages aren’t there, you just won’t win many games." Junior Amanda Luney will be called upon again to be the ace of the team. Luney, the durable right-hander from Siloam Springs, finished last season with a 12-8 record and a 2.35 ERA. Luney recorded 36 strikeouts. "Amanda is a great number one pitcher and does an excellent job in that role," said Janssen. "She is probably one of the hardest workers on the team and always tries to improve her skills. With Amanda and our other freshman, we feel like we have a better pitching rotation than last year." With continued offensive production and solid pitching performances, the Lady Eagles may earn their first appearance in the conference tournament. "One of our main goals this season is to make the conference tournament," said Janssen. "I feel like we match up with just about anybody on our side. We played East Texas Baptist close in two games last season with Amanda pitching, so we know can play with those girls. We just have to eliminate our defensive mistakes." The Lady Eagles begin the season on February 11 in a double-header against Ouachita Baptist in Clarksville. Game times are set for 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.