CHICKASHA – With nearly all returners and a fresh coach bringing new enthusiasm, the Drover softball team has a chance to make a strong impression in 2013.
In her first season at the helm of a program, Head Coach Jadyn Smith is confident the 2013 Drovers will be a force to be reckoned with this season.
“My expectations for this year are to compete to the best of our ability and finish in the top of the conference,” she said. “These girls are more than capable of doing just that.”
The Drovers begin the season on the road at the Cowtown Tournament Friday and Saturday in Fort Worth, Texas. They play in another tournament the following weekend before their home opener on Feb. 26 against NCAA Division II Cameron University. The first pitch of the doubleheader is scheduled for 1 p.m.
Nearly the entire 2012 squad is back for another season, minus last year’s lone senior Elizabeth Agpalo and ace pitcher Neesha Sorrell, both of whom were strong assets to the team.
Regardless of those two missing players, the entire infield and outfield have returned for another season.
“Our age is a strength that will be at our advantage with the maturity I have on the field,” Smith said. “I wouldn’t say we have any specific weaknesses. We are just works in progress.”
The only new face, besides catcher Mindi Locke who was on medical redshirt last season, is Brittni Kent, who joined the team as a pinch runner this winter. Kent, a junior, plays soccer and runs cross country at USAO.
While most of the team could fit under the category of “key returners,” two in particular are All-Conference Second Teamer Taylor Smith and Chelsea Zuchnik, who earned the SAC Gold Glove honor.
Smith, the team’s starting shortstop, scored 18 runs and was second on the team in runners batted in with 63 in 2012.
Zuchnik, a senior outfielder, had a perfect fielding percentage last season with 62 putouts and three assists without a single error.
“Our biggest strength as a unit is our defense,” Smith said. “I would match our defense up against anyone. We are scrappy and quick, and that’s what it will take to win ball games for us this year.”
The Drovers may struggle in growing pains in the circle with just two pitchers on the roster. Morgan Bratcher — formerly Morgan Singleton — had an ERA of 2.79 last season and earned five wins for the Drovers. She threw 37 strikeouts.
The team’s other pitcher is Brooke McLeod, who is in her third season at USAO. She has a career ERA of 4.20 and has thrown 61 strikeouts and earned six wins.
“I think that things will shape up great if we — as a unit — mold together,” Smith said.
Always competing in a tough softball conference, two Sooner Athletic Conference opponents —Lubbock Christian and Oklahoma City — are ranked in the NAIA Top 5 in preseason polls. Saint Gregory’s falls not too far behind at 16.
Three conference opponents have left the SAC since last season. Those teams are Southern Nazarene, Oklahoma Christian and Northwestern OSU.
The Drovers are projected to finish fifth in the conference. They ended the 2012 season sixth. But Smith plans for her Drovers to come in even stronger this year.
“If we show our strengths every game, we will finish much higher than fifth and will be in the NAIA Top 25,” Smith said. “My goals for this season are to finish in the top of the conference, gel together as a team and make it to a regional and then on to nationals.”