Sports / The Prairie Fire / February 29, 2012

Practice, young talent fueling softball’s expectations

Selected to finish third in the Midwest Conference’s South Division ahead of Illinois College and Grinnell College, as per the predictions of South Division head coaches, the Knox College softball team will certainly confront some sizable expectations concerning its performance during the 2012 season.

However, the Fire, led by third-year Head Coach Ashley Sims, is solely concerned with satisfying its own aspirations regarding the 2012 campaign and discounting the expectations attached to its 2012 play coming from outside of the program.

“We always have expectations. … We have expectations of ourselves,” Sims said.

While the Fire return six players from the 2011 team, including budding sophomore star Amber Eisha, Knox will be forced to replace its leading hitter during the 2011 season, junior Brittany Wisniewski, and its third-leading hitter from a year ago, junior Kaylah Murphy.

Sims appears undaunted by the loss of Wisniewski — who hit .372 with three homeruns in 2011 and starred during her two years on the Fire roster — and Murphy, and remains confident that her 2012 squad will prove competitive in the South Division.

“I think we’re going to be fine. We have some young talent coming in; … practice has been going well. We can see improvements. … The younger kids are going to have to get acclimated to the college game … and the conference,” she said.

The Knox softball program welcomes three freshmen this season: freshman corner infielder Jenna Butler, freshman outfielder Claire Neri and freshman catcher Brittney Price. While Sims expects the first-year players to produce, she has not burdened them with any substantial expectations.

“I look for [the freshmen] to come out and do what they’re capable of doing. There’s not going to be any additional pressure. They probably put enough pressure on themselves. There may be growing pains; … we’re going to work through it,” Sims said.

During the 2011 season, a trio of freshmen was vital to Knox’s success. Sophomore Anna Lemen and Eisha pitched all but 12 innings for the 2011 squad. Lemen led the Fire in earned-run average (5.67), while Eisha fanned 40 batters in 98.2 innings of work and completed 13 games. Eisha, who paced the Prairie Fire with five wins, had a freshman campaign for the ages — a season in which she put her name in the program record book with regard to home runs (five) and strikeouts. The all-Midwest Conference South Division pitcher proved to be a force at the plate as well, smacking seven doubles, in addition to her five home runs (third-most in program history for a single season), driving in 19 runs and compiling a .349 average over 29 starts.

The other freshman who provided the Fire with sterling play in 2011 was sophomore middle infielder Jordan Shaffer. Shaffer started all 29 contests for Knox and produced a solid slash line in 2011: .278/.321/.329. Shaffer also offered the Prairie Fire reliable performances in the field, committing only eight errors in 117 chances, good for a .936 fielding percentage.

Sims believes that she and her staff have done “a pretty good job” in allaying the demands the star sophomores have faced, as she has not encumbered the trio with any pressures of carrying the team in 2012. As with any returners, Sims merely asks the abovementioned sophomores to “go out there and do [their] jobs.” Also, the coach advised Eisha, Lemen and Shaffer to not “put any unnecessary pressure” on themselves.

While Knox will return six players in 2012, including senior catcher Amanda Wollrab and senior outfielder Beth McRill who started all 29 games for the Prairie Fire and compiled a respectable .268/.350/.338 slash line, the Fire will feature a mere 12 players on its 2012 roster. The Fire’s dearth of players may enervate its performance with respect to consecutive doubleheaders scheduled on April 6 and April 7, during the Midwest Conference Crossover in Waukegan, Ill. on April 14 and April 15, and on April 21 and 22. Nevertheless, Sims is assured that the team will be able to manage the rigors of consecutive doubleheaders — in spite of its scarce personnel — due to the Fire’s collection of versatile players.

“It’s something we’ve grown accustomed to,” Sims said, with respect to the Fire’s diminutive roster size.

With its youthful core remaining intact, the Prairie Fire, bolstered by a talented freshman class, ought to offer South Division foes Monmouth and Lake Forest a challenge for the division crown. The Fire’s 2012 campaign begins this Saturday, March 3, with a doubleheader scheduled at 1 p.m. against the NAIA Saint Ambrose Fighting Beess in Davenport, Iowa.

Myles Klein

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