By BEN JOHNSON
Northeastern State’s team earned run average in 2013 was good enough to be middle of the pack in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association. The RiverHawks allowed 3.82 runs per game, which was 10th out of 15 teams.
In 2014, NSU coach Clay Davis expects his club’s ERA to be much lower.
“Pitching could be a strength for us,” Davis said. “We have tremendous depth in the circle. We return sophomore Kayce Wooldridge, who won double-digit games for us last year and was the ace of our staff, along with redshirt sophomore Alex Files, who is completely healthy and ready to assume a top spot in our rotation.”
But Davis’ pitching staff doesn’t stop with his two returners. Davis also bolstered his arms race by adding a Division I and a Division II transfer.
Shelbie Wagnon, a Mounds native and former standout at Beggs High School, transferred from Florida International, where she appeared in 20 games last season with a 3-2 record and a 4.17 ERA. Laura Fleck of Muskogee left Rogers State to join the RiverHawks after going 29-13 with a 2.90 earned run average at Rogers State in 2013.
“[When we] add D-I transfer Shelbie Wagnon and transfer Laura Fleck, who won 30 games last year at Rogers State,” Davis said, “we have a lot of options in the circle.”
The RiverHawks’ will feature plenty of returning players in their lineup to back up the pitching staff. Madison Reed, Saharra Henson, Megan Robison and Navada Campos all will reclaim prominent spots in the NSU batting order.
“As far as offense goes, we have a great combination of power, speed and hitting for average,” Davis said. “(Freshman) Lauren Flanary and Madi Reed are great table-setters and could allow Saharra, Krysti (Cearley), Megan and Navada to tally up some big offensive numbers.”
Reed will retain her spot in left field, but Henson and Robison will begin the 2014 season at new spots on the diamond. Henson moves from center field to third base, and Robison moves from second base to center field.
Affording plenty of lineup flexibility are three youngsters that Davis projects to start in the opening-day lineup. Flanary, Cearley and second baseman Maddie Boyd will all log plenty of playing time in their first full collegiate seasons.
“We will start three freshmen on opening day and look for all three to have big years,” Davis said. “Maddie Boyd will play second and has as good of hands as anyone I’ve ever coached at that position. Another freshman Ryan Martin will also see a lot of at-bats and bring enormous power to our lineup.”
NSU will open the 2014 campaign in Stephenville, Texas, against Harding. The RiverHawks are slated to play 10 games between Stephenville and Wichita Falls, Texas, to start the season before opening up at home against Bacone on Feb. 22.
Cearley, Campos took over at catcher: No one was better with a bat in her hand than Kelsi Hilderbrandt was last season for Northeastern State. Hilderbrandt posted a team-high .376 batting average while driving in 29 runs with a .518 slugging percentage.
Now it’s up to the RiverHawks to replace her production.
That responsibility will fall upon redshirt freshman Krysti Cearley and Navada Campos, who split time with Hilderbrandt behind the plate in 2013.
“Having Hilderbrandt last year allowed us to red-shirt Cearley,” NSU coach Clay Davis said. “She is a tremendous defensive catcher and has an outstanding arm. And the work she has put in over the offseason has allowed her to secure the clean up spot in our lineup.”
In 50 games last season, Campos hit .298 while posting a team-high 11 home runs.
Meaningless polls: Davis was asked what he thought of his club being picked fifth in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association, and like any other coach, he didn’t think much of the predictions from the league’s coaches.
“The preseason ranking is just that — preseason,” said Davis, whose club trailed reigning national champion Central Oklahoma, Missouri Western, Fort Hays State and Emporia State in the league’s preseason poll. “A lot of coaches just vote based on how you finished last season. Being picked fifth shows that we are gaining respect in the conference, but the four ranked ahead of us have established themselves as the teams to beat. We believe we can be better than fifth. Now it’s our job to go out and change others’ opinions of NSU softball.”
Learning curve: In NSU’s first season in the MIAA, the RiverHawks went 16-10, including a 1-2 venture at the league tournament in May.
Now, NSU is out to improve on its inaugural venture through the league.
“I think (the players’) expectations are higher based on getting a taste of postseason play last year,” said Davis, who wrapped up a 27-24 season with a 7-4 loss to Missouri Western at the league tournament in Overland Park, Kan. “...Our approach to the MIAA is the same as last year. This is as tough of a conference as you’ll find, and you have to show up every day and bring your best if you want a chance to compete and finish at the top of the conference.”
Schedule breakdown: NSU’s schedule was altered before the season could even get going. The season-opening tournament in Durant was called off, forcing NSU into Plan B this weekend.
Now, the RiverHawks will play five games in Stephenville, Texas, against the likes of Harding (twice), Northwestern Oklahoma State, Southern Nazarene and host Tarleton State.
Next week NSU will return to north Texas, where it’ll play five round-robin games at Midwestern State in Wichita Falls, Texas.
Following that will be NSU’s home opener against Bacone and William Jewell on Feb. 22.
NSU will begin league play on March 7 at home against Lincoln. But before that, Davis will be studying one key area of his team.
“Over these next few weeks, I’m looking for cohesiveness in our team,” he said. “I’m looking for chemistry and looking for which one of our pitchers are going to solidify themselves as our go-to pitchers. I think the talent is there, now it’s time to go see just where we are.”
NSU will begin MIAA play 12 straight home games, in doubleheaders against Lincoln, Lindenwood, Pittsburg State, Missouri Southern, Fort Hays State and Nebraska Kearney. But after March 22, NSU will play only six more home games — only two of which will be conference games against Central Oklahoma.
Fourteen of NSU’s final 16 road games will be away from RiverHawk Park.