The East Central University softball team finished the 2013 season with a 42-13 overall record and a 23-7 mark in the Great American Conference (2nd place). So for 2014 the bar has been set higher, especially when you add in the fact that the Lady Tigers lost just three players from the 2013 team.
The success from a year ago and the retention of the majority of the squad has not gone unnoticed by the GAC coaches, as ECU was picked to finish second (87 points/2 first-place votes) in the 2014 GAC Preseason Poll.
Southeastern Oklahoma State was picked to finish first, with 97 points and seven first-place votes. Arkansas-Monticello was picked third (75 points/2 first-place votes), Arkansas Tech fourth (70 points), Southern Arkansas fifth (60 points), Henderson State sixth (59), Ouachita Baptist and Southern Nazarene seventh (36 points), Northwestern Oklahoma State ninth (33), Southwestern Oklahoma State 10th (27) and Harding 11th (25).
“I think that are expectations are really high,” said head coach Destini Anderson. “We have a lot of experience with whom we have coming back and who we have added to the mix.”
The Lady Tigers return a total of 13 letterwinners and seven starters, but did lose three starters from 2013. The group of losses includes 2013 GAC Player of the Year Shelby Simmons and All-GAC Second Team pick Ali Manship.
While ECU has key losses, they also have several key returners, which includes GAC Freshman of the Year Lacey Paulk. Paulk is one of two returning pitchers for the Lady Tigers, with junior Brianna Nunley. The duo combined for a 30-9 record in the circle and helped force their opponents to a .259 batting average.
“Luckily we have our top two pitchers back from 2013 in Lacey Paulk and Brianna Nunley,” added Anderson.
Paulk finished the season with a 19-3 record, which included a run of 17-straight winning games. The Goldsby, Okla., native stuck out 133 batters, threw 15 complete games and five shutouts to earn All-GAC First Team honors.
“Lacey has worked really hard in the off season,” Anderson commented. “She is excited and ready to play.”
Nunley had a strong sophomore season, going 11-6 in the circle after winning five of her last six outings. The Moore, Okla., native finished the season with a 2.91 ERA and 96 strikeouts.
“Brianna finished last season on a really high note and that gave her a lot of motivation and confidence to continue to improve,” Anderson said. “She is a junior this year and she is poised and ready to have another great year.”
The Lady Tigers will also be bolstered in the pitching circle with the addition of Sydney Dow and Nicole Nordie.
Dow is a transfer from Valparaiso University, where she redshirted her freshman season. She spent her senior prep season at Okarche High School where she helped the team at a district title and earned All-Oklahoma Pitcher honors for Class A.
“We are excited about Sydney, both offensively and in the circle,” commented Anderson. “I think she is going to contribute for us all-around.”
Nordie comes to ECU from Sanger High School, where she helped lead the team to a 3A Area Championship in 2013 and earned the 3A District MVP honors.
“This is the third Nordie sister that I have had in my program and I love working with them,” Anderson said. “She is a very impressive young athlete who has pop and speed. In the circle she spins the ball better than probably anyone I have seen.”
Catcher is another position where the Lady Tigers will benefit from depth and experience. ECU returns both Gina Mengwasser and Kayci Snider, who took turns at catcher in 2013.
Mengwasser is coming off a strong season that led to All-GAC First Team and Daktronics All-Region Second Team honors. The Edmond, Okla., native finished the season fourth in the conference with a .390 batting average and first with 53 RBIs.
“Gina is a great leader and is like having a coach on the field,” said Anderson. “She knows the game and umpires all summer, so that helps her feel confident in what she is doing on the field.”
Snider finished the season with a .993 fielding percentage, 30 hits and six home runs.
“Last year Kayci caught every other game and I expected her to do that again this season. The experience that she got last year has helped her confidence and abilities to lead,” commented Anderson. “I am excited to see what she can do for us this season. She gets a lot of extra cuts in the cage and puts in the time on her own to continue to get better.”
ECU will have five returners in the infield positions and will also add two players to the mix for added depth. From the group of returns, the Lady Tigers have two returning starters in Chelsea Patterson and Laruen Reeves.
Patterson was strong on offense and defense for ECU in 2013, with a .920 fielding percentage and a .380 batting average as the leadoff hitter for most of the season. The Decatur, Texas, native tallied 57 hits, 37 runs and 13 RBIs, while only striking out eight times earning All-GAC second team honors.
“Chelsea led off for us in the fall and while we don’t know what our lineup will look like this spring we know that she will always be a spark for us offensively,” Anderson added. “She is also solid for us defensively and I expect her to continue to improve in her junior season with the experience she has gained.”
Reeves spent most of the season at first base for ECU in 2013 and hit .325, with 40 hits and 17 runs.
“Lauren is a rock on defense,” commented Anderson. “I am looking for her to have more of a role offensively for us this year.”
The Lady Tigers will also return Kaile Marcum, Peyton Watson and Tarra Underhill-Christy to the infield mix. Watson missed most of last season due to injury, but is an all-around athlete that is expected to contribute in 2014. Underhill-Christy is one of the two seniors on the 2014 squad and will provide depth and stability.
While Marcum saw limited action in 2013, she stepped up in the fall to fill in a key hole left by Simmons at short stop.
“Kaile played short for us this fall and did an exceptional job,” said Anderson. “Having to replace Shelby Simmons, who was the GAC Player of the Year, is a lot of pressure on an already tough position to play.”
ECU will also add depth with the addition of Western Kentucky transfer Samantha McGraw and Amanda Edmundson.
McGraw helped the Hilltoppers to a second-place finish in the Sunbelt Conference in 2013, while hitting .231.
“I am really excited about Samantha McGraw,” added Anderson. “She is exciting to watch. This fall she was phenomenal at third base and has also put in a lot of extra time in the cages.”
Edmundson spent the 2013 season practicing with ECU and will get her first chance to show what she can do in a game situation this spring. The Norman, Okla., native helped the Little Axe High School team to a 3A Oklahoma State Championship in 2011 and the 4A title in 2012.
“We have been waiting a long time to be able to get Amanda on the field so we are really anxious to see her in the lineup and on the field,” Anderson commented. “She is expected to be an intimidating presence in the lineup.”
The ECU outfield will be strong with the return of four players from 2013 and the addition of one. The Lady Tigers return Autumn Suydam, Leah Tigert, Jordynn VanPelt and Lacey Williams and add Carlee Henderson to the mix.
Tigert was one of three members of the 2013 squad to earn All-GAC Second Team honors, after recording a .394 batting average, 43 hits and 27 RBIs.
“Leah is a clutch player,” Anderson stated. “She had big hits last season to win conference games. When the game is on the line she wants to be in the box and that is something that you can’t teach.”
VanPelt was named to the All-GAC Honorable Mention team, with a .328 batting average, 38 hits and 26 RBIs.
“Jordynn is an exciting player to watch and is an all-around player for us,” said Anderson. “With the experience that she got last year in the lineup, I expect her to have a better season at the plate.”
Suydam had a good freshman campaign for ECU, gaining confidence at the conference tournament. She is a quick player that can cover a lot of ground in the outfield and has a good bat as well.
Williams will return to the lineup after injury sidelined her during the 2013 campaign.
The new addition to the rotation in the outfield in Henderson, a local recruit. Anderson likes the attitude and effort that she showed in the fall and is happy with the hard work that she has seen.
The 2014 edition of the Lady Tigers will be tested early, as they will travel to the St. Mary’s Tournament in San Antonio, Texas for the third-straight season. However, ECU has added two addition tournaments to the 2014 schedule that are in place to increase the number of strong regional opponents. The tournaments will also help prepare the Lady Tigers for the strong competition faced in the GAC.
Besides the St. Mary’s tournament, ECU will travel to Durant, Okla., for the Southeastern Regional Invitational and to Bentonville, Ark., for the Arkansas-Monticello Classic. Both tournaments feature a mix of teams from the Lone Star Conference, Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association and the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference.
“We are trying to better prepare for the conference season,” Anderson stated. “We want to go further in the post season and I think that adding stronger competition in these early tournaments will help us get to the next level.”
The 2014 roster is not the only area of the softball program that saw upgrades in the off season. The Lady Tiger Field also saw key improvements, including dugout renovation, a new fence, new outfield fence length, a new windscreen, and sprinkler system.
“Our team takes pride in the field and facilities and these improvements just make them even more proud to be part of our program,” commented Anderson.