After watching the Southwestern Illinois College offense hit in bunches during an abbreviated fall exhibition season, veteran Blue Storm coach Kathy Bernal was as optimistic as she’s been in several years heading into the start of the ‘16 softball season last week.
And while setbacks of 10-0 and 17-3 at the hands of Lewis and Clark College on Saturday could be viewed as an ominous start, it did little to curb the enthusiasm of Bernal.
“The mistakes we made are correctable and its like I told the girls after the games; ‘losing these first two games does not define our season.’ We’ve still got 56 more games on our schedule,’’ Bernal said on Monday. “Now if we’re 0-10 or 1-12 in a week or so, then we might have to change some things.
“Offensively, we were lunging at pitches instead of just swinging through the ball. We weren’t patient. I didn’t think our pitching was that bad. It’s just that they (Lewis and Clark) would get a bloop or a seeing eye hit up the middle, we would make an error and they capitalized with a big hit. Before you knew it we were giving up big innings. In the fall, we were the ones who had six and seven run innings several times.’’
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The Blue Storm warmed up a bit on Tuesday as SWIC defeated St. Louis Community College 13-4 before dropping the nightcap 5-1. But with two of the top offensive players in Region 24 returning in catcher Becca Proper and shortstop Terri Dearth, the Blue Storm could be as strong as its been in several years.
The pitching staff
Sophomore Whitney Moreland (Ramsey) returns to lead a SWIC staff which once again lacks a dominating ace. Moreland, who leads an other which includes an otherwise young and inexperienced staff which includes freshmen Tate Smith (Bethalto) and Taylor Fithian (Red Bud), doesn’t throw hard. But the righthander does change speeds well and has the ability to move the ball up and own in the strike zone.
Dearth, one of the top all-around players in Region 24, will also see time on the mound and rounds up the Blue Storm’ four-person rotation.
“We don’t have anybody who can throw the ball by hitters on a consistent basis. What we have are four pitchers who throw strikes and change speeds well,’’ Bernal said. “If we hit the ball like we’re capable and I think we have as good a hitting team as we’ve had in several years, it will take some of the pressure off our pitching staff and defense.’’
Around the horn
Proper is a gifted receiver behind the plate. Blessed with a strong arm, the former O’Fallon standout will handle the Blue Storm’s pitching staff most of the time and is one of the top offensive players in Region 24. Freshman Kelsey Deaton (Bethalto) is Proper’s backup and will catch when Proper is either playing in the outfield or handling things as SWIC’s designated hitter.
Dearth and sophomores Claire Buechele (Lebanon) and Amanda Campbell (Belleville East) will form a solid left side of the infield. Buechele, a gifted and competitive athlete, missed all last season with a knee injury, but should see the majority of playing time at third base, while Campbell will see time both at the ‘hot corner’ and in the outfield. Dearth is one of the best players in Region 24 and will help direct the Blue Storm infield while playing shortstop.
Sophomore Niccole McConnell returns at second base while freshman Cindy Scroggins (Roxana) is penciled in at first base. Freshman Taylor Oxford (Bunker Hill) is a versatile athlete who can play several positions around the infield while other utility players include sophomore Selena Santos (O’Fallon) and freshman Juanda Eisemann (Belleville West), both of whom can also play several different positions.
Speed in the outfield
Campbell and McConnell will also play in the outfield, while Proper, although a catcher by trade, has good speed and a strong throwing arm. She will also see some playing time at one of the two corner outfield positions.
But one of the true catalysts this season for the Blue Storm offense will be freshman Alliyah St. John. A standout two-sport athlete while at Belleville West, St. John will be SWIC’s starting centerfielder and leadoff hitter. Anytime, she reaches base, St. John will be a disruptive force for opposing defenses to worry about because of her blazing speed.
“She doesn’t have a green light to run when she wants too, but I would think that every time she’s on first, she’ll be on second and maybe third shortly,’’ Bernal said of St. John. “The key is to be able to get her on base.’’