Knights have high ambitions again this season

News-DemocratApril 2, 2014 

— High expectations are nothing new for the Triad Knights, who deal with it by setting three straight-forward goals each year.

"The expectations are always high, and they continue to get higher," said Triad coach Kris Kleeman, whose team has gotten off to a 4-1 start this season with the lone loss coming against the Belleville East Lancers. "At the beginning of the year, we always sit down and set our goals. We want to win 20 games, we want to win the (Mississippi Valley) conference and we want to win the regional. Those are usually the three goals that we set for ourselves, and anything else is just icing on the cake."

The Knights accomplished one of those goals -- they won the MVC title -- but they came up just short of the two other goals last season.

They lost to eventual Class 3A state runner-up Alton Marquette in the championship game of the Triad Regional.

They also had a string of eight straight 20-win seasons snapped as they went 19-4, but it wasn't due to a drop-off in their talent level.

"We were short of it last year simply because we had more than a dozen games rained out," Kleeman said. "I think very easily with Kelsey (Bailey) pitching, we could have won 25 to 30 games."

The Knights lost only two senior starters -- Bailey and shortstop Amy Hunt -- to graduation, but they left huge holes to fill.

Bailey was 10-3 with a 2.05 ERA on the mound. She also batted .392 with four homers and a team-leading 23 RBIs.

Hunt batted .366 with 18 runs scored.

"Your shortstop and your No. 1 pitcher -- those are always huge," Kleeman said. "We're missing them tremendously within the lineup."

The Knights bring back three pitchers with experience in Kelsey's younger sister, Jenn Bailey, Jordyn Alford and Nikki Steiner.

They've also added freshman Kari Sarhage to the mix.

"The pitching staff, I have no worries about," Kleeman said. "The depth is there. I don't have quite the overpowering pitcher that Kelsey was, but we definitely have some girls who throw the ball well."

Jenn Bailey went 6-1 with an 0.98 ERA last season. She'll be the Knights' ace this season.

"I think that was the difference in the Belleville West game," Kleeman said of Jenn Bailey's experience in pressure situations being a major factor in a 1-0 win over the Maroons on Monday. "They had runners on first and second with nobody out and runners on second and third with one out, and I think the fact that Jenn has a lot experience was the reason we won that game. She didn't get rattled."

Abigail Schroeter, who batted .316 last season, returns at catcher.

Steiner, who batted .455 last season, is making the transition from outfielder to first baseman.

Returning second baseman Alleigh Kruse has improved her hitting as evidenced by her two homers and nine RBIs in five games this season.

"She's had two home runs over the fence," Kleeman said. "She worked really hard in the offseason, and she's doing quite well."

Sophomore Abby Burroughs will handle the shortstop duties.

Alford, a first team News-Democrat All-Area selection who batted a team-leading .529 with 18 RBIs last season, will play third base when she's not pitching.

When Alford is pitching, Beth Mersinger will play third. Mersinger also will play left field.

Avery Myers is in right field, while Mycala Feldman is in center field.

Myers hit .313 with 13 RBIs last season.

"We have some versatility and we're moving some people around, which is good," Kleeman said. "A lot of these girls want to go on to the next level, and you can't go on as a single position player."

Kleeman said she's confident that her defense will be air tight, but she's still tinkering with her lineup trying to find the right combinations.

"We are going to have hit consistently," Kleeman said. "We have difficulty facing different styles of pitching, and we play all kinds of different pitchers on our schedule."

Kleeman said the Knights are working on playing smallball with more bunting and base stealing as way of scoring runs more consistently.

"It's going to come down to developing our short game," said Kleeman said. "I don't know if we are the quickest team in the conference. Triad is not known as a short-game type of team. We've been known as the long-ball team. I'd like to develop a short game and maybe get some more consistency there."

Contact reporter Steve Korte at skorte@bnd.com or 239-2522.

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