Sports / The Prairie Fire / May 6, 2015

Softball looks forward, not back

The Knox Women’s Softball team finished their season with a 2-29 record this year, down from marks of 6-28 in 2014 and 6-25 in 2013. The team’s declining success is not cause for alarm, as the team is finding itself in a transitional season.

“It definitely was a building year,” senior Claire Neri said. “But it wasn’t a year we just wanted to lay over and die, so it was heartbreaking fighting such an uphill battle.”

The uphill battle features the graduation of their strongest pitcher, Amber Eisha, from the previous year, while incorporating a new coach and an increasingly young team. With only two wins this season against Ripon and Grinnell, the team and coaching staff have been reflective on how to build and where to go.

“For us this year, we made too many errors,” Head Coach Erin Rutledge said. “Errors are going to happen, but I talk to the girls about the mental side of the game a lot. … It’s ok to make an error, but how are you going to learn from that mistake? How do you recover and change so that it doesn’t happen again? I think it has had a positive impact on some of the girls already.”

Head Coach Erin Rutledge talks to senior Kayla Behrens. (Courtesy of Erin Rutledge)

Head Coach Erin Rutledge talks to senior Kayla Behrens. (Courtesy of Erin Rutledge)

The team, averaging about four errors a game, recognizes this as a weak point both physically and mentally. With a handful of errors a game coming from infield, a plethora of easy runs are practically handed to the opponent, according to freshman shortstop Dominique Scott.

Rutledge, a new coach to the Knox program this year, is undergoing a learning process, just as her young team is.

“Usually other teams we faced, their coaches have far more experience because they are older, so I feel that could have been a little bit of an issue [for us],” Rutledge said.

Her team, however, was sympathetic to the necessary adjustment period Rutledge is facing.

“For the most part, it’s her first year, so it was just her getting used to everything. Just by seeing how all the other coaches are, and other teams are, will help her for next year,” Scott said. With many new faces, the upperclassmen stepped up, emerging as leaders on the field as well as helping Rutledge adjust to her new position.

A lack of experienced pitchers was another cause for hurt on the team this season, with only two players regularly rotating within the position. With former pitchers Eisha and junior Karli Shields not returning, there was a lack of experience to help usher in new pitchers, freshmen Kristen Koviekis and Alannah Sanchez. This sheer lack of experience can be attributed, partly, to the lack of success this spring season. Rutledge was a former pitcher who specializes as a pitching coach; often Rutledge will stay after practice to help Koviekis and Sanchez improve. Having a coach that specializes in the weak points of the team bodes well for improvement as well as anchoring the team around solid pitching.

“We have very young pitchers, but that isn’t the only reason we struggled this year,” Rutledge said. “What people need to understand is the two first-year pitchers I have are going up against girls 21 and 22 years old, who have been playing college ball for three more years. These girls have been lifting weights and practicing year round for three more years, and that makes a huge impact. Our two young pitchers did a lot of things to be proud of, and I am excited to see them grow as athletes with years to come.”

The team also welcomed Senior Women’s Administrator Lexie Vernon as their assistant coach this year, an exciting prospect for the outfielders.

“Lexie was an outfielder [in college], and so we had a dedicated outfield coach,” Neri said. “It really helps to have someone who knew the outfield and knew what to do with us… sometimes you get mixes in communication without someone like her.”

Vernon had previously been aiding the team, but received the official title of assistant coach this season, giving her more autonomy within the team and helping Rutledge and the team remain positive and confident that the tables will turn, possibly as soon as next season.

Rutledge’s positivity is something that many members of the team have noted and appreciated coming off of a losing season.

The development of players like freshman Kristen Koviekis will be integral to the future success of the team. (Lizzie Wisdom/TKS)

The development of players like freshman Kristen Koviekis will be integral to the future success of the team. (Lizzie Wisdom/TKS)

“She always tries to make the best of everyone,” Scott said. “She found a way to show everyone a good aspect of herself, whether it was just a good part in general or on the field.”

While maintaining her positivity, Rutledge did not fail to hold her team accountable, pushing them to want to improve. For instance, for every error in a game, or for every looking strikeout, the team would run sprints.

Looking forward, the team will be graduating four of its fourteen players, and it is a necessity to fill those gaps by the following season. Rutledge says that she is looking for quality players both new and returning more than a larger roster. Seniors such as Neri look forward to how the team will continue to build, but worry about the academics of new arrivals to Knox Athletics.

“They are gunning for these students who can compete athletically, but cannot necessarily compete academically,” Neri said of a few new coaches. “Knox is a lot more rigorous than any other institutions around. So it’s not so much a failing, it’s just something they don’t know and aren’t aware of yet, because it’s their first years here.”

Speaking to the larger state of athletics, Neri makes a compelling point. All Knox athletic teams face this dilemma each year as freshmen transition into Knox’s rigorous schedule while also balancing athletics. Some are unable to balance both, as was the case for a member of the softball team this year, who left before the spring season began. This is usually the case with spring sports. While the transition can be tough, Scott recalls the team being more than willing to help out in any way possible, smoothing her transition.

Confident those remaining on the team are here to stay and compete, Rutledge anticipates a strong season as the young team and coaching staff settle into their positions.

“It will be nice next year that I will be returning most of my starters,” Rutledge said. “Six of nine positions should be returning to the field next year, and with another year of practice under their belts I think there is potential for great leadership roles to emerge.”

Sam Watkins

Tags:  alannah sanchez amber eisha claire neri dominique scott erin rutledge Karli Shields kristen koviekis

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