SE softball opens Saturday; No. 10 in NCAA D-II Poll

By HAROLD HARMON Sports Writer

January 31, 2014

If you have to chip ice out of the cup to drink your coffee, it must be softball season.

Coach Ron Faubion’s defending Great American Conference champions (45-9 overall, 25-3 GAC) are scheduled to open the 2014 campaign Saturday morning in the St. Mary’s tournament in San Antonio.

Southeastern is No. 10 in the NCAA Division II Top 25 preseason poll released Wednesday. Angelo State (No. 17) will be SE’s opponent in the third game of the season. St. Mary’s (fourth game) and St. Edward’s (fifth game) each received votes in the poll.

The LadyStorm will take on the University of Texas-Permian Basin’s Falcons at 10 a.m. Saturday, then play Texas A&M-Kingsville’s Javelinas at 2 p.m.

The three-day, six-game trip to Texas gets it started and the season continues with the Southeastern Regional Invitational February 7-8-9 at Durant’s Multi-Sports Complex.

Faubion’s LadyStorm brought home Southeastern’s first championship in the Great American Conference last year and are favored to repeat.

Thirteen returnees will lead the way with pitchers Jacee Bennett (21-5, 2.71 earned run average, 188 strikeouts), Mindy McElroy (22-3, 1.77 ERA), Rachel Jones and Shayna Milam joining position players Darrian Williams (.284, two triples), Laramie Beal (.311, 7 home runs), Courtney Riddle (.420, .600 slugging percentage) and Kelsey Overacker in the outfield, plus infielders Lacie Cook (.335, 7 of 9 in stolen bases), Jessica Simmons (.351, 48 runs scored, 35 of 41 in steals), Brittany Wilson and Lauren Renneker (.342). Whitney Hamilton (.236, 4 home runs, 26 runs batted in) returns as a catcher/designated player.

Bennett was 2013’s GAC Pitcher of the Year and also named NCAA Division II national saves leader with nine.

McElroy was the GAC Newcomer of the Year.

Faubion was the GAC Coach of the Year.

Bennett and McElroy were named first-team All-GAC along with graduated catcher Courtney Moore.

Simmons, Cook and Beal were second-team All-GAC choices and Riddle earned honorable-mention selection.

Bennett and Riddle were also named All-Central Region honorees.

Faubion said, “We should have outstanding team speed with returnees Simmons, Williams, Milam and Cook.

“Beal, Riddle, Hamilton, Renneker, McElroy and Bennett can all hit the long ball.

“We will add speed with newcomers Shaina Crites (Durant High/Murray State), Sydney Kramer and Arianna (A.J.) Jones. A.J. is recovering from Tommy John surgery and we’re not sure when she will be able to throw, but she can help as a runner.

“Haley Strawn will move in at shortstop and add power to the lineup. We have several able to hit the ball out, but just don’t do it consistently.”

Softball will have an assistant coach for the first time as former outfielder/infielder Courtne St.Claire (2012) will handle those duties. Paige Priest (2013) is the graduate assistant this year. Priest was a two-year starter in the outfield and outfield play will be her primary responsibility this year.

Newcomers are southpaw pitcher Hosanna McCoy, catcher Connor Harmon, outfielder Arianna Jones, utility player Sydney Kramer, infielder/outfielder Shaina Crites, shortstop Haley Strawn and infielder Megan Birchfield. Infielder/outfielder Adree Young of Rock Creek will miss the season with knee surgery.

Birchfield is the daughter of former Savage baseballer Neil and Michelle Birchfield.

The Storm lost catcher Moore, center fielder Priest, third baseman Kaija Morris and utility/designated runner Dakota Palmer off the 2013 GAC championship team.

Cook has moved from short to third with Strawn playing shortstop. Simmons is at second and Renneker/Rachel Jones at first to start the season. Harmon/Hamilton will open behind the plate. Wilson, Kramer and Birchfield are all pushing to get into the lineup.

Williams, Beal, Riddle, Overacker, Kramer and Crites will be scrambling for playing time in the outfield.

Faubion said, “I think we have a good mix of veterans and newcomers. As always, it will take some time to get the right combination on the field. We’ll be experimenting early. The good thing is that we have some options this year.

“We will have some power, but we will use our speed to play small ball, manufacture some runs and keep the pressure on our opponents.

“As the defending champion of the GAC, we will have a big target on our backs, but that’s okay. I think our kids will be able to handle that pressure and play well.

“Our schedule is never easy and with 40 conference games, we can’t go out and schedule some of the top teams as we like to do.

“We’ll get tested early when we play Angelo State, Texas A&M-Kingsville, St. Edward’s and St. Mary’s in the opening tournament. We will play Emporia State, Missouri Western, Central Missouri and Angelo State (again) in our tournament February 7-9.

“We’ve had several good practices and we’ve looked rusty in some practices. I think the kids are ready to play someone in different uniforms.”

The LadyStorm will start finding answers to the 2014 questions at 10 a.m. Saturday in San Antonio.

Weather permitting, of course.