By BEN JOHNSON
India Williamson and Jessica Johnson were nowhere to be found in the pitching circle. Aimee Bohannon was not penciled into the batting order at all.
Gone were the days of Northeastern State's most recent success in softball. The 2007 and 2008 seasons were distant memories.
It was up to rejuvenated roster and first-year coach Clay Davis to right the ship after the RiverHawks had slogged through four straight under-.500 campaigns from 2009 to 2012.
The prognosis early on was dismal. On March 15, the RiverHawks returned home from a two-game series against Pittsburg State in Pittsburg, Kan., saddled with two losses and an 8-14 record. NSU would follow that up with a split at Missouri Southern to shift its record to 9-15.
Spring break followed. And it's all the RiverHawks needed to go from Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association doormats to league contenders.
An eight-game winning streak in late March and early April propelled the RiverHawks to a 27-24 campaign and league-tournament qualifiers.
"I thought this year was a great step in the right direction," said Davis, who took coached at Berryhill High School prior to taking over at NSU.
"We set some goals — finish above .500 and make the conference tournament — and we did both of those. Those are both solid building blocks moving forward."
After struggling throughout much of the non-conference schedule, Davis said his job at the midpoint of the season was to pump positive vibes into his players.
"The hardest thing was convincing them that they were good," Davis said. "When we beat the league's best pitcher (Maddie Holub) at Fort Hays State, you could see the girls start to think, 'coach is right, we are good.' And we went on to be a force in the conference."
Credit pitchers Kayce Wooldridge and Cayce Coleman for the transformation. Coleman, a senior, wrapped up her career with a 9-7 mark and a 4.19 earned run average. Wooldridge, a freshman out of Berryhill, was 10-13 with the team's best ERA at 2.68.
"We're excited about our future and excited about Kayce Wooldridge," said Davis, Wooldridge's coach in high school. "She earned the first start in the conference tournament."
Davis said Wooldridge would headline NSU's pitching rotation in 2014.
"We'll have depth," Davis said. "We're excited to get Alex Files back, and we're excited to get Paige Gann from Muskogee and get her in the rotation, as well."
While the RiverHawks will lose three .300-plus hitters (Kelsi Hilderbrandt (.376), Lisa Ripperger (.315), Lindsea Ross (.311)), they will bring back the top three in the batting order in Saharra Henson, Madison Reed and Amanda Harjo.
"Our one-, two- and three-hole hitters will return next year and anchor the lineup," Davis said. "We also look for Navada Campos to improve her offensive game."
Harjo led the club with 44 runs batted in during the 2013 season, Reed scored 33 times and had a team-high 15 stolen bases and Henson scored a team-high 44 times while recording 70 total bases. Campos led the RiverHawks with 11 home runs.
Davis is also bringing in reinforcements for the lineup.
"Lauren Flanery out of Henryetta and Beggs' Ryan Martin will join us next year," Davis said. "We're excited about the offense with these young kids coming in."
With the 2014 season still close to nine months away, Davis predicted his RiverHawks would be somewhere in the middle of the pack when the next MIAA preseason poll comes out.
"We might be in the four to five range," he said. "Emporia State has a lot of returners back. UCO (Central Oklahoma) has a lot back, and Missouri Western is playing as well as anyone."
As for Davis' transition from high school to college coaching, he described it as quite a change in pace.
"It was a whirlwind," Davis said. "Things happened so fast; it feels like the year flew by. It's exciting, though, and I'm looking forward to what's to come. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else right now."
NSU softball in 2013
- Record: 27-24 (16-10 MIAA)
- Season's end: The RiverHawks fell to Missouri Western in the MIAA tournament consolation quarterfinals. NSU went 1-2 in the league tournament.
- Memorable moment: NSU beat No. 11 Fort Hays State 2-0 in the first game of a doubleheader on March 22.
- Numbers to know: The RiverHawks hit .316 as a team. ... NSU outscored opponents 283-229. ... NSU pitchers posted a combined 3.82 earned run average, compared to 4.85 for opponents. ... Three players hit better than .300 for the RiverHawks.
- Players lost to graduation: Cayce Coleman, Lisa Ripperger, Ashton Bruce, Laquieta Drew, Lindsea Ross, Kelsi Hilderbrandt.
- Top returners in 2014: Amanda Harjo (shortstop, .362 batting average, 34 runs, 44 RBI, 84 total bases, .941 fielding percentage); Madison Reed (outfielder, .335 batting average, 33 runs, 15 stolen bases); Navada Campos (catcher, .298 batting average, 11 home runs, 32 RBI, 81 total bases, .574 slugging percentage), Kayce Wooldridge (pitcher, 10-13 record, 2.68 earned run average, 5 to 1 strikeout-to-walk ratio).
- Players signed for 2014 (all from the state of Oklahoma): Madison Boyd (second base/outfield, Chelsea); Lauren Flanery (outfield, Henryetta); Paige Gann (first base/pitcher, Muskogee), Ryan Martin (outfield, Beggs); Randye Sharp (outfield, Oologah); Brianna Trujillo (third base/shortstop, Tulsa Union); Jessi Venable (first base, Muskogee).