By BEN JOHNSON
Cayce Coleman is the unquestioned ace of Northeastern State’s pitching staff. Knowing that, life became difficult for the RiverHawks during a recent six-game stretch.
Against Oklahoma City University on March 9, Coleman took a come-backer off her face and was forced to sit out NSU’s games against Arkansas Tech, Pittsburg State and Missouri Southern with concussion-like symptoms. The RiverHawks went 2-4 during that span with Alex Files, Kayce Wooldridge and Shelby Enloe filling the pitching void.
Coleman, though, was able to return just in time. The former Red Oak standout returned in NSU’s two-game set at No. 11 Fort Hays State, and the RiverHawks split the two games and returned home with a boatload of confidence.
“We missed her,” NSU left fielder Madison Reed said. “Whenever she came back and pitched, she did wonderful. She did awesome against Fort Hays.
“I’m glad to have her back. I played with her last year, and you can always just trust her with whatever she’s doing up there.”
And sure enough, Coleman was back it at RiverHawks Park this weekend, leading NSU to doubleheader sweeps over Central Missouri and Southwest Baptist in Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association.
“This weekend, her stuff was really on,” NSU coach Clay Davis said of Coleman, who picked up two victories after logging 12 innings in the pitching circle in which she allowed only three runs (one earned) on eight hits to go along with 11 strikeouts.
“She had great command and did what we expect out of her.”
Coleman (4-3) said she’s thrilled to be back out on the field after being forced to watch from the dugout.
“I hate not being able to play,” said Coleman, whose earned run average is now down to 4.37 in 59 1/3 innings of work. “It was really tough sitting there and watching your team and not being able to help them out.”
The silver lining in Coleman’s injury could be the emergence of Shelby Enloe. The right-handed pitcher from Hominy tossed two masterpieces against Missouri Southern and Fort Hays State to pick up victories. She garnered her third straight victory on Friday during the RiverHawks’ 18-4 rout of Central Missouri.
“Our pitching is coming around,” Davis said. “Shelby Enloe has done a great job in the circle for us; her confidence is growing.”
As the exclamation point for the weekend, Wooldridge whirled a complete-game shutout in NSU’s 7-0 victory over Southwest Baptist — after the RiverHawks won the first game of the doubleheader, 9-1 in five innings.
“Kayce Wooldridge had a great outing today,” Davis said of the freshman hurler from Berryhill, who struck out five and only allowed four hits against the Bearcats.
Now on a four-game winning spurt, the RiverHawks are in the thick of the MIAA race. NSU now sports a 14-16 overall record while its conference mark is 6-4, tied with Northwest Missouri State for fourth in the league.
“If we can continue the way we’re going right now, getting a lot of runs and playing defense, I’m sure we’ll be in a top seed, hopefully,” said Reed, a former standout at Muskogee, who is in the midst of a nine-game hitting streak.
Even after NSU dropped to 7-11 after being swept by Oklahoma City University, Davis envisioned his club turning the proverbial corner. On his Twitter page on March 12, Davis posted: “Felt a huge break through with @NSU__Softball team today! Excited bout tomorrow! Wouldn't want to coach any other team!”
Turns out, he was right. All it took was a short sit-down with some of his senior leaders.
“We just had a team meeting,” Davis recalled. “The seniors and I met together, and we really got on the same page there and re-lit the fire under them. And they’ve passed that on. They’ve really taken over since then.”
They sure have. Seniors Lisa Ripperger, Lindsea Ross and Kelsi Hilderbrandt went on a RBI binge this weekend. Ripperger drove in seven runs — five in NSU’s 14-run win over Central Missouri — while Hilderbrandt and Ross combined to plate six base runners.
“We’ve made a lot of adjustments at the plate,” Davis said. “...This weekend, I think the difference was we just had better approaches at the plate. We had a plan when we got in (the batter’s box) and we didn’t put ourselves in big holes. We kept ourselves in hitter’s counts, and I think that was a big difference for us.”
NSU’s next test will come Wednesday when the RiverHawks venture to Edmond to take on No. 9 Central Oklahoma, which is 9-1 in the MIAA and 27-5 overall.
“Really big,” Davis said of the upcoming two-game set between the two rivals. “UCO is right in there at the top of the conference, so we need to go in there and keep doing what we’re doing: being aggressive at the plate, make quality pitches, go right at people and see if we can’t play good defense behind them.”