The walk from the dorms to class at 8 a.m. may be keeping us in bed in the mornings and the parking lots around Clinton and fraternity houses may be caked with ice, but the start of the 2015 softball season will be underway, snow or shine, in less than a week.
After a 27-15 record, a third place IIAC Tournament and fourth place regular season finish, Simpson College softball will be returning five starting position players, including their top two pitchers.
“I think we have the chance to at least reach what we did last year, or go past it,” Tori Haag, junior starting catcher, said. “I think we have retooled a little bit and I don’t think the other teams in our conference will be as good as they’re projected.”
While the IIAC coaches’ preseason poll hasn’t been released, Simpson received four votes in the National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) Division III Preseason Top 25 Poll.
The Storm won’t have an easy slate in the IIAC though, as the same poll has Central tied for 12, Luther at 18 and Coe receiving five votes.
Before the conference season, beginning March 31, Simpson will play 14 non-conference games between their two road trips.
This weekend they will head to Marquette, Mich. between Lake Superior and Michigan for six games against Wisconsin schools at the nation’s largest wood structure dome.
A 14-story, 5.1 acre structure that hosts Northwest Michigan College football will play host to UW-Superior, UW-Oshkosh, Concordia-WI and Edgewood University among others.
“It’s worth the trip just to see the dome,” head coach Henry Christowski said. “Two games go on at a time, and the field is not necessarily evenly distributed. It’s deep in center and right but left field is more traditional. We are playing regional teams, which is significant, and four of the six teams we play are pretty good.”
Competition will get stiffer as weather gets better when Simpson travels to Winter Haven, Fla. for spring break. There they’ll play 14 games, eight teams the Storm played in the regional tournament last year.
As the NCAA changed what constitutes as regional games, all of the games in Florida will be considered regional play, which is significant as those games factor into postseason play.
Position changes and pitching depth:
The Storm’s biggest losses from last year’s team include starting third baseman, Hillary Harmon, second baseman Kylie Van Houten and center fielder, Emma Negrete.
These three helped generate 42 of the team’s 201 RBI and 16 of the team’s 24 stolen bases, although coach Christowski doesn’t see the team lacking in offense.
“By taking Negrete and Harmon out of the lineup, we lost two pretty good speedsters,” Christowski said. “But we replaced them with some fence busters.”
Simpson returns its top three run producers in Abbie Van Vleet, with six home runs and 40 RBI, Tori Haag, who hit .415 with five home runs and Hailey Jensen, who drove in 20 and hit .314.
Van Vleet and Haag both received first team, All-IIAC honors as Jensen was a second team selection last year.
There will be a few position changes to account for the loss of three starters. Left fielder Ashley Prettyman will move to second base and Hailey Jensen will slide in at third base as junior Rachel Guessford will jump in at first base.
“Ashley played second all of high school, so she’ll be good there,” junior Abbie Van Vleet said. “Everyone has had experience at these new positions so the adjustment won’t be too bad. It’ll just take a couple games.”
Senior Britney Steele is slated to start as shortstop, although in the outfield things are less certain. Senior Stacie Brown, who started every game last year, hitting .267, will stay in the outfield and may be joined by junior Grace Hall or a number of candidates.
“Several players are vying for the position,” Christowski said. “Whether it’s Kinsey Van Houten or someone else, we’ll have some freshmen that are going to push people.”
Junior Natalie Mueller, from Norwalk, and freshman Taylor Davis, from Carlisle, will also vie for spots.
Speaking of newcomers, the Storm will benefit from Des Moines Area Community College transfer, Riley Fisher, who started her career at Iowa State University, now ending up at Simpson in her junior year.
Fisher, the Des Moines East High School grad, pitched DMACC to a third place finish in the nation last year, pounding out nine home runs while going 20-7 on the mound with a 1.18 ERA in a team best 171.2 innings.
Christowski describes Fisher as being halfway between a junk ball and overpowering pitcher.
Fisher will be expected to help support Van Vleet, who won 19 of the team’s 27 games last season. Both of them will compete for the designated player role when not on the mound.
Despite losing third-in-command Courtney Wagner, Simpson also brings in freshman Maggie Long, another Des Moines East grad, to take the fourth spot in the rotation. The Storm also bring back junior Kaytlyn Ernst, who went 7-11 in 98.1 innings last year.
“The biggest thing is that our pitching staff is a whole lot deeper,” Christowski said. “It’s deeper than it’s been for a long time.”
While it’s subject to change, the pecking order in the pitching staff will be: 1) Van Vleet 2) Fisher 3) Ernst and 4) Long.
“I think we’ll stay in games with our pitching and win games with our offense,” Haag said.
The long road ahead:
The Storm will begin their search for a third NCAA Division III national championship and 15th NCAA Tournament appearance this Saturday at 8 a.m. (EST) against UW-Superior in the Superior Dome Tournament. It’s the first game of a 40-game regular season schedule.