EDWARDSVILLE — Southern Illinois University Edwardsville softball coach Sandy Montgomery spent a great deal of time during the fall season with the 2013 Cougars working on competitiveness and handling adversity.
"Hopefully, that will make us better in the long run," said Montgomery. "We spent a lot of time on team chemistry, team building, and handling adversity."
There will be ups and downs in the course of a college softball season. Montgomery said she wanted to demonstrate how important it is for players to know how to deal with adverse conditions.
SIUE, which finished the 2012 season with a 23-29 record and a 13-16 mark in OVC play, opens the 2013 season Friday at the three-day Kickoff Classic in Starkville, Miss. The Cougars will be tested early against Georgia State twice as well as single games with Troy and 2012 NCAA Tournament participant South Alabama.
Just as in most seasons, SIUE has a mix of players with solid experience as well as a number of players battling for playing time. Montgomery said the team's 17-player roster may be small but it is packed with competitive players who will push each other.
The SIUE infield has three returners with sophomore third baseman Alex McDavid (Suwanee, Ga.), junior shortstop Chelsea Yankolovich (Phoenix, Ariz.), and senior second baseman Taylor Tooley (Joliet, Ill.).
McDavid was named first team All-Mideast Region by the National Fastpitch Coaches Association after batting .368 last season.
"People will have her number this year. She is going to have to be able to adjust," said Montgomery. "She has worked very hard on her hands and understanding hitting. And I certainly expect her to have another good year for us. She is much quicker defensively, and she is just a pure hitter."
McDavid and Yankolovich, who had 105 hits in her first two seasons, were named All-OVC with McDavid picking up All-Newcomer team honors.
"I think Chelsea is much stronger this season and quicker. I think she has matured into the position," Montgomery said. "The kid can just flat out play shortstop."
Tooley has provided a big bat for the Cougars the last three seasons with 15 home runs (No. 8 all-time) and 76 runs batted in.
"This has been Taylor's most productive offseason. She has come to practice with the right mindset. I'm excited to see her progress this season," said Montgomery.
Montgomery said Tooley will be pushed for playing time by junior Kayla Riggs.
"Kayla is very quick on contact defensively. Her arm is much stronger this year," Montgomery said.
The only infield position without a returner is first base. The first baseman, noted Montgomery, will be someone who plays solid defense and provides a solid bat in the lineup.
"First base is still up in the air," said Montgomery. "There are two or three individuals who are going to get opportunities to win that spot."
That list includes Riggs, Rachel Coonrod, CC Hutchinson, and Haley Chambers.
"Rachel is a good hitter and can give us a lot of assistance from an offensive standpoint," Montgomery said. Coonrod, a junior, has hit .296 over the past two seasons with five home runs and 52 RBIs.
"CC has great bat speed and is a great contact hitter. As she gets stronger, she is going to have great power numbers. She needs to learn how to hit at this level, but she has a big upside for us." Montgomery said of the freshman.
Chambers could find herself playing two different positions during the season. Montgomery said she was recruited to be in the pitching rotation but is also playing a nice first base.
Catcher Samantha Stanicek, one of three seniors on the roster, can be penciled in as SIUE's starter behind the plate. Stanicek appeared in 51 games last season and has been as important to the Cougars on defense as she has been on offense.
"She brings a lot of leadership and lot of experience. She is very game savvy. Right now she is our everyday catcher. If someone wants to win that spot, they are going to have to beat her out," Montgomery said. "She handles pitchers well. She understands pitching and setting up hitters."
Redshirt freshman Andi Dimmig-Pottsand Coonrod also are listed as catchers on the roster.
"Andi has a strong arm and quick feet behind the plate. As she gains experience, she is going to turn into a nice player for us," Montgomery said. "She does a nice job behind the plate."
SIUE's outfield has the most experience and perhaps the most competition.
Jill Rackers and Brittany Toney return in the outfield.
Rackers, a junior center fielder, batted .283 last season.
"Jill is competing for time in center field. She brings a lot of speed to the outfield and the bases. She is a very hard worker and isn't afraid to show her passion for the game," said Montgomery.
Toney, a sophomore right fielder, hit .298 and was third on last season's team with 23 RBIs.
"Brittany has tremendous power and is going to continue to get better as a hitter," Montgomery said. "She has come a long way in understanding how to play the outfield."
Rebecca Grayspent much of her freshman season on the pitching rubber rather than as an outfielder.
"She has really worked hard in the offseason to improve her offensive game. She is a lot stronger this year and is another hard worker. She shows up every day, and that's something I like about her," Montgomery said.
The Cougars also have three freshmen looking for playing time in the outfield with Jordan LaFave, Kelsey Hansen, and Christian Harryman.
Montgomery said LaFave could appear in any of the three outfield positions. She is ready to ink LaFave into one of the starting spots in the outfield.
"She is probably the most polished outfielder we have from a technical standpoint. She is a freshman so she will have to learn the ups and downs of the game and not let it affect her performance. She can be a good contact hitter and can hit for power. She has a very strong and accurate arm," Montgomery said.
Hansen is coming off an arm injury in the fall. "She is coming around from an offensive standpoint. She has good speed and good quickness. She runs the bases well and will certainly be in a lot of different roles for us," said Montgomery.
Montgomery said both Hansen and Harryman will push for playing time.
"She is going to continue to work hard and understand how to play at this level," Montgomery said of Harryman. "She made great progress toward gaining strength and will provide depth to our lineup."
The SIUE pitching staff has one returner and two fresh faces for 2013. Senior Amanda Lambrechtanchored SIUE's staff last season with a 17-15 record with a 3.49 earned run average.
"She has worked hard from a mechanical standpoint this offseason. She has gotten stronger and more confident," Montgomery said. "The fact that she will have a staff around her will make her a better pitcher. She should be rested and strong during her outings."
Lambrecht has made some changes to the slate of pitches she will utilize. Montgomery said that should boost her confidence and give her the ability to be around the plate more.
Lambrecht will be joined this season by Chambers, a left-hander, and junior transfer Erin Greenwalt (Glen Carbon).
"Haley is a freshman who has a tremendous upside. She has good command of the strike zone," Montgomery said. "She is going to continue to have growing pains at this level, but I certainly can see she is a very talented young lady and is very competitive. She is someone who wants the ball."
Greenwalt transferred into SIUE from Bowling Green.
"She has worked hard to correct some mechanical issues," Montgomery said. "We've seen a huge difference in her command from the fall season to now. She throws a very heavy ball and throws the ball hard. She is a great addition to our staff."
Montgomery said there's no set rotation for the pitching staff, and that it may be a game-time decision on who is a starting pitcher.
"I don't like to identify No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3. I like to throw the pitcher who is going to be the most successful against the team we are playing," Montgomery said. "All of the pitchers must have command of the strike zone. They have to be able to throw purpose pitches. And they have to get outs."