Cocoa Beach, Fla., was friendly to the women of the Knox College softball team, which makes sense, because who does not love a week at the beach? The relaxing environment was a perfect place to begin the 2009 campaign, and the team came through with aplomb, posting a 4-2 record for the week with another game called early, as several players, both veteran and rookie, gave the team boosts they needed to start off on the right track.
“They worked extremely hard the first six weeks of practice, and what they put into it definitely came out during spring,” Coach Patti Keenan said. “You always have a couple of people that shine here and there, but they put in the time, and it showed.”
Keenan, who is in her first year at Knox as head coach of the team, is taking over a team that last year went 4-20 on the season and 2-6 in conference, good for last in the division. Key losses from last year include southern division player of the year Katie Dura, who led the team in all key offensive categories, and second team all-conference players Katie Schneider and Ashley Konicki. Despite these losses, the team has had an influx of young talent arrive on campus, as well as a good core of strong veteran leaders.
“My expectations are for them to work 110 percent every single day, to leave everything out on the playing field,” Keenan said. “What comes after that is, everything’s a bonus. Of course we want to make it to the tournament, we want to win conference, we want to do all this stuff, but it’s one step at a time here.”
Led on the field and in the clubhouse predominantly by seniors Kate Latshaw and Ashley Olson as well as junior Cheyenne Cortez, the team also has some younger players that have already made an impact and look to cause more damage, including sophomore Emma Paul and freshman pitcher Brianna Williams. While they were not offensive dynamos on the level that Dura was last year, Latshaw and Olson work hard to keep the team cohesive and morale at a high level and are near the top on the team in batting average with Latshaw at .294 as well as six RBIs, and Olson at .250, while the free-swinging Cortez looks to continue her offensive production of last year, where she batted .312 with eight RBIs and an OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of over .600. As of Wednesday, she is hitting only .194, though she has collected six RBIs. Paul is batting .455, though in only 11 at-bats.
“I would not put pressure on any single person to turn this program around,” Keenan said, though when asked about whom among her newer players could cause an instant impact she was quick to answer, “All of them.”
Though there is a collection of talent that has arrived this year for the team, if spring is any indication it is Williams that will cause the biggest bang, both in the lineup and in the field. As of Wednesday, Williams is either tied for or holds the lead in all offensive categories, as she is hitting .364 with two homeruns and ten RBIs. Her OPS is 1.114 (for reference, Manny Ramirez has a lifetime OPS of 1.004), and has walked more then she struck out. She also leads the team on the mound with an ERA of 5.25, 33 strikeouts and a record of 3-4.
The team has yet to begin conference play, so the slight swoon they are experiencing upon returning to Illinois is nothing to worry about. Since returning, the team has gone 0-6 in three days, four of which were games in hostile territory. Even with this drop off in success, Keenan is undaunted.
“Not being able to practice on a field once we got back hurts a team,” Keenan said. “We had such great weather down there (Florida), and you get used to things. We got off the bus, classes started, and we had a game. Did they have enough time to rest? Well that’s where we find out how tough they are.”
Even with this early slump, the women of Knox are ready to play, and with a lineup led by Latshaw, Olson, and the arrival of Williams as a slugger, the future looks bright for the Prairie Fire, and with a new skipper, the sky is the limit for this uniquely talented, tough as nails squad.