February 22, 2013

Solid pitching staff to carry load for Penn softball team

William Penn University

OSKALOOSA — The William Penn softball team will rely on a stout pitching staff to carry the load as it seeks to return to nationals in 2013.

William Penn, 22nd in the NAIA’s preseason ranking, was 47-18 (22-2 Midwest Collegiate Conference) last year and made its third National Championships appearance in program history, finishing with the second-most wins all-time.

“Last season was a very good year for us,” William Penn coach Mike Christner said. “Our players had the attitude that they were going to nationals and nothing was going to stop them. We had a great group with great pitching and probably the best 3-4-5 hitters in the region.”

Jennifer Whitehead (Jr., Oskaloosa, Iowa, Biology) returns to the pitching circle after claiming NAIA Honorable-Mention All-America laurels a year ago. Also back to bolster the roster are all-MCC performers Molly Miller (Jr., Kalona, Iowa, Business Management), Ashlee Dennis (So., Loveland, Colo., Biology), and K.C. Routos (Sr., Newcastle, Wash., Physical Education).

Whitehead’s return means it will likely be another low-scoring season for William Penn’s opponents. The junior, who is the two-time defending MCC Pitcher of the Year, was 24-12 last year with a 1.44 ERA. She struck out 193 batters against 65 walks and allowed batters to hit just .210.

“Jen had another great year in 2012 and has not backed off a bit,” Christner said. “She had a good offseason and works hard every day to continue to improve.”

Newcomer Carly Land (Sr., Mission Viejo, Calif., Education) will provide a tremendous complement for Whitehead as she transfers in from NCAA Division II Cal State-San Bernardino for her final season.

“Carly still has a little bit to learn about our program and our expectations, but we look for really big things from her,” Christner said.

Katelyn Buckalew (Fr., Granger, Iowa, Undecided) may also see time in varsity competition, while Veronica Castro (Jr., Riverside, Calif., Elementary Education) will add depth in the circle.

“Katelyn has not pitched in a couple years, but has been asked to help out due to injuries in our pitching staff,” Christner said. “She has been throwing for a couple months and has been a pleasant surprise.

The other end of the battery is still a three-person race, with the possibility of a fourth stepping in if she can get healthy.

Last year’s starter Ashley Kingery (Sr., Knoxville, Iowa, Public Accounting) is back as is Brailey Freed (Sr., Loveland, Colo., Physical Education), while Bri Zerley (So., Monroe, Iowa, Biology) is new but brings collegiate experience as a transfer from Iowa Central CC.

Kingery hit .252 last season with one home run, 12 RBIs, and nine runs. Freed played mostly off the bench with six runs scored.

“Ashley has the most experience, but Bri has also competed in college and probably has the best arm of the three,” Christner said. “Brailey is a solid catcher who has been working hard to improve.”

If she can get healthy enough to play in the field, Mikayla Djordjevic (So., Las Vegas, Nev., Digital Communication) will certainly battle as well. Djordjevic owned a .333 batting clip with four runs and two RBIs.

“Mikayla has a great arm, but that is unfortunately the part of her body she injured,” Christner said. “We will closely monitor her progress.”

Returners Diana Cassaro (So., Las Vegas, Nev., Undecided) and Callie Henry (Sr., Earlham, Iowa, Elementary Education) are currently in a tight race with newcomer Ashley Olson (Jr., Norwalk, Calif., Biology) for the starting nod at first base.

Both Cassaro and Henry hit .200 in 2012.

“This is one of several positions where whoever hits will get the start,” Christner said. “It is a neck-and-neck race with all three showing about the same at the plate.”

Hannah Lain (Fr., Corydon, Iowa, Physical Education) is also working out at first base.

“Hannah is still learning the fine points of the game and is about a year away for us,” Christner said.

The battle for second base is the most intriguing for Christner as he has three individuals who will likely serve in that role throughout the season. The trio includes Sonia Ray (Jr., San Diego, Calif., Physical Education), Sydney Edwards (So., Galesburg, Ill., Psychology & Biology) and Routos.

Routos is the only player with varsity experience for the Lady Statesmen, hitting .292 with one home run, 29 RBI and 15 runs a season ago.

“This is a position that will have several players rotating in and out, depending on who steps up but also with what we do with other positions,” Christner said. “It will be very interesting.”

Ciara Kimminau (Fr., Arvada, Colo., Sociology & History/Government) also adds depth at second base.

Last year’s starting second baseman has hopped over the bag to serve as William Penn’s shortstop this spring. Miller owns the best batting average of all returners at .353 last year.  She scored 44 times and drove in 28 runs as well.

“Molly enters her fourth year as a starter for us,” Christner said. “She played shortstop as a sophomore and has made the transition back very smoothly.”

Jessica Christensen (Fr., Marysville, Wash., Sociology) will back up Miller, but will likely see her skills utilized in a different area.

Routos is the incumbent at third base, but is getting strong competition from Zerley, among others.

“This is another spot where our best hitter will get in the lineup,” Christner said.

When not pitching, Buckalew may earn innings at third base. Tori Albaugh (Fr., Sigourney, Iowa) came to William Penn during the winter break and will add depth at the spot as well.

Three returners who all played primarily on the junior varsity squad a year ago have finally earned their chance at a varsity spot in 2013 in left field. Freed is being joined in the battle by Sollita Lucero (Sr., Denver, Colo., Human Services & Sociology) and Aylissa Tyler (So., Des Moines, Iowa, Physical Education).

“All of these three young ladies have worked hard,” Christner said. “Hopefully whoever wins the spot can produce well for us.”

Dennis is back to lead the middle of the outfield. Dennis finished 2012 with a .316 hitting mark, scoring 29 runs with 10 RBI.

“Ashlee is coming off a nice freshman year and I look for her to improve in her sophomore campaign,” Christner said.

BreeAnne Chism (Jr., Fullerton, Calif. Psychology) will serve as the alternate in center field.

“BreeAnne is working on her game and just needs to learn more about how to play at this level,” Christner said.

After three years in the infield, Cassie Lohman (Sr., Burbank, Calif., Sociology) may have finally found the position she was meant for — right field.

Lohman’s 2012 batting average was .210 with nine RBI and eight runs scored.

“Cassie’s move from second base to right field has been great; she just looks natural there,” Christner said. “She is certainly providing a plus for us out there.”

Assuming she can get healthy, Djordjevic is also expected to be a back-up in right field.

Christensen is considered to have the team’s best power so Christner is looking to get her in the lineup in any way. Enter the role of designated player.

“Jessica has a lot of pop in her bat, so we really want to get her at the plate somehow,” Christner said. “This is the most likely spot for her.”

Djordjevic, Henry and Olson may earn at-bats as the squad’s designated hitter as well.

The 2013 slate opens at the Lyon Tournament in Arkansas this weekend, while the traditional spring break trip to Arizona will highlight William Penn’s non-conference season.

“This should be a pretty tough tourney down in Arkansas and we have several tough games in Tucson as well,” Christner said. “Finishing up our regular season against perennial top-25 teams Olivet Nazarene and Saint Xavier just adds to a non-conference campaign that will prepare us well for games against our conference foes.”

William Penn has been selected to repeat its MCC title, but Christner figures it to be a four-team race with St. Ambrose, Mount Mercy and Grand View giving his team a good fight.

“We will have to show up every day in our conference,” Christner said. “St. Ambrose, Mount Mercy, and Grand View all have strong components, while Clarke and Viterbo continue to improve yearly.”

“We have a long way to go,” Christner said. “We have a lot of returners but not a lot of experience. It could be tough in the early going, but if we work hard and get our hitting to match our pitching we could be much better by late April.”