MITCHELL, S.D. – After graduating only two seniors from the roster a season ago, the Dakota Wesleyan University softball team is ready to make noise in 2018.
The Tigers were tabbed eighth in the competitive Great Plains Athletic Conference Preseason Poll, but returning 12 players who saw significant innings a season ago, DWU is ready to prove themselves this season.
DWU returns four All-GPAC performers from last year in Paige Kinley (Worthington, Minn.), Amber Budmark (Sacramento, Calif.), Melysia Ortega (West Covina, Calif.) and Sierra Haage (Sioux Falls, S.D.). Other returners expected to make contributions include Andriana Sprakel (Yankton, S.D.), Katelyne Dougherty (Maui, Hawaii), Claudia Nixon (Shaunavon, Saskatchewan, Canada), Karly Severance (Las Vegas, Nev.), Alexis Konda (Sioux Falls, S.D.), Alyssa Garcia (L.A. Verne, Calif.), Andrea Konz (Mitchell, S.D.) and Mikael Smith (Brandon, S.D.).
"The team has been lifting, conditioning, hitting, practicing and of course studying and we are all excited to see what this group can do," head softball coach Ed Kieff said. "We have great pitching, catching, hitting and fielding skills, and we will have a shot at the conference title. Hard work and pushing each other at every position will make that a definite possibility for this group."
The Tigers will turn to Haage to lead the team on the mound. As a freshman, she recorded a 15-7 record, with a 2.49 ERA in 149 innings pitched. Last year, Haage posted an ERA of 3.56 with 125 strikeouts in 182 innings pitched. She also provided depth as a hitter as she recorded a batting average of .217 with 26 hits, two doubles, two homeruns and 13 RBIs.
Another pitcher that Kieff will look to will be Konz. In her first season, Konz pitched in 15 games and tallied 17 strikeouts in 40 innings pitched. Kieff will also look to freshmen Devany Farris (Cheyenne, Wyo.) and lefty Alyson VanderPol (Mitchell, S.D.) for depth on the mound.
"Andrea has improved exponentially over the offseason, and has mastered her pitches well," Kieff mentioned. "Devany and Alyson have some skills we can build on which will add depth to our staff. It's nice to have a staff with varying pitches and Alyson adds the fact that she is a lefty."
With one senior on the team, there will be no one better to turn to than Kinley for the Tigers. She led the team a season ago with a .384 batting average and a .535 slugging percentage. Kinley finished her junior campaign with 61 hits, 11 doubles, two triples, three homeruns and 14 RBIs.
"Paige is a great team leader," Kieff said. "She is a perfectionist with her game and she is able to take on the role as the leader very well. The players look up to her and she has the help of a group of juniors who have been here since she arrived."
With six juniors on the roster, there will be a plethora of experience at the plate and in the field. Budmark was second on the team last year batting .338 and finished with 30 RBIs and a slugging percentage of .514. Severance returns for the Tigers and brings a powerful bat to the lineup and gives the defense a reliable option. She finished last year with a fielding percentage of .983 and only five errors on 301 chances.
Sprakel finished last year with a batting average of .250 with 39 hits, 15 RBIs and a homerun. Dougherty also returns after a sophomore season batting .213 and finishing with a fielding percentage of .933. Nixon is the final junior returning as she provides depth at the plate for the Tigers. She finished last year hitting .205 with three RBIs on eight hits.
"Our juniors are all seasoned players with multiple years of experience and plenty of game time under their belts," Kieff stated about his junior class. "They know the system we have and lead the way on and off the field."
Ortega returns for her second season with DWU and brings a powerful bat to the lineup. In her freshman season she finished with a .306 batting average, 45 hits, 27 RBIs and a homerun. Other second-year players that will provide experience for the Tigers include Konda, Garcia and Smith. Along with the second-year players will be the freshman class to watch this season.
"Our sophomore group is a year older and much stronger and much more confident," Kieff said. "Our freshman group is phenomenal and they are fun to have around. They all push each other and that is what's going to make this program stronger over the next several years."
The Tigers opened their season at the Presentation College Dome Classic in Aberdeen, S.D., on Feb. 10 and 11. They defeated Dakota State University to end the weekend, 9-3. DWU returns to Aberdeen for two games on Saturday beginning at 10 a.m. and two games on Sunday. On March 5, the Tigers begin their annual play in Tucson, Ariz., where they will play 10 games in five days. DWU will host its season opener on Saturday, March 17 against Southwest Minnesota State at 1 p.m.