It all comes down to recruiting now.
For the Prairie Fire women’s softball team, if a couple more pieces can fall into their proper places before next season, the team could be one to be reckoned with.
Next season, Knox will return nearly its entire squad with the exception of graduating senior Kim Krogull. Though the Prairie Fire finished ninth in the conference in team batting average and eighth in total bases, its youth this year could pay dividends for the next. The returners includes the lineup’s two offensive linchpins, junior Brittany Wisniewski and freshman Amber Eisha, both of whom ranked first or second on the team in nearly every offensive category. Eisha’s 1.000, and Wisniewski’s .983 on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) ranked both players in the top 15 in OPS in the Midwest Conference’s (MWC) overall stats, taking into account players at each position.
“The experiences we’ve had all have pretty much played and dealt with a lot of responsibility and a little pressure, and that will really help the incoming players get their feet wet,” head coach Ashley Sims said.
Toward the end of the year, Knox also saw increased production from its leadoff hitter, junior Kaylah Murphy, who finished the year with a .297 batting average after a slow start, and freshman Jordan Shaffer, who posted a .600 batting average over the team’s last six games.
“It shows promise,” Sims said. “Our kids that were maybe struggling some at the beginning of the year made some big plays down the stretch. And that gives us a lot of hope for next season.”
With two freshmen carrying the bulk of the load in the circle, the Prairie Fire finished eighth in the MWC in overall team earned run average (5.68). Freshman Anna Lemen (1-9) and Eisha (5-12) accounted for all of the Prairie Fire’s innings in the circle, with Lemen posting a 5.67 ERA in 63 innings pitched and Eisha posting a 6.17 ERA in a team-leading 98.2 innings. The two excelled in always being around the plate, as Knox allowed just 27 walks in 173.2 innings pitched. In walks allowed per game, Knox’s pitching staff stood out against the rest of the MWC.
Eisha’s pitching performance (2-6, 5.91) combined with her clutch hitting (.425, 4 HR, 15 RBI, 1.348 OPS) in MWC play led to a nod on the Midwest Conference South Division’s First Team All-Conference.
“Amber was solid both defensively and as a pitcher,” said Sims. “She was strong at the plate as well and always a threat. We’re excited to see how she comes along after a nice first year.”
For the second straight year, Wisniewski was snubbed from the All-South Division team with what were certainly deserving offensive numbers.
One area in which the Prairie Fire will need to improve next season is team defense. Knox ranked ninth in the MWC with a .917 team fielding percentage, with 70 total errors. It will also need to figure out some way to offset the decided disadvantage in the running game. Knox stole only 11 bases in 13 attempts on the season. Opponents, meanwhile, were 46-for-50 against Knox in the stolen base department.
In addition to all the returning players, Sims said she is adding some depth to her corner infield positions, which should help the defensive stability and help Prairie Fire players get into their true positions.
“It gives us more security at positions,” Simms said, “and helps us get to where we want to be depth-wise and numbers-wise.”
These positives, Simms thinks, will help push the Knox softball team from competitive to more consistent winners.
“Our expectations are higher. Everyone’s on board, and you can definitely tell,” Sims said. “You can really see that added level of responsibility, and it showed from the outside … Look for us to take the experience from tough situations into next season. We’ll bring back the same hard-nosed approach and let things fall where they may.”