To say it was a difficult weekend for Knox baseball and softball would be an understatement: By a combined score of 108-48, baseball and softball lost all eight of their games over the weekend. This total is somewhat inflated by certain games, such as softball’s 20-1 loss to St. Norbert, but the point stands: The baseball team is 5-19, winless in eight conference games, and softball has won just one of their games, coming in at 1-29.
“You just have to let [the losses] go,” said junior Kaly Davidson. “You let it roll off your shoulders, and you lose with class. There have been a number of players and coaches from other teams who tell us they enjoyed playing us not because they won, but because we’re good people and good sports.”
Softball’s effort is simply not reflected in their win-loss record. The team, despite having only 11 players, puts their bodies on the line for between five and six hours a day, often with tantalizingly close results: In last week’s contest against St. Norbert, for instance, the team led 7-6 until the seventh inning, when St. Norbert was able to pull away on a couple big hits.
Still, something needs to change within the softball program if it hopes to improve on its win-loss record. The team has won only 24 games over the last five years (including 2016), and the total has declined each season. The team earned nine wins in 2012, six wins in 2013 and 2014 (though 10 of those 12 wins were MWC victories), only two wins last year and one this year thus far.
Statistics are no more forgiving for the Prairie Fire, who are hitting 200 points lower than their opponents (.213 as compared to .416), are getting outscored by an average of over nine earned runs a game (2.40 to 12.87) and are giving up almost two more walks and hits per inning more than their opponents (3.09 to 1.17). The team was able to pull together its first victory against Beloit on Tuesday, a 2-1 walkoff that was largely reflective of an outstanding performance from sophomore Allanah Sanchez. If the Prairie Fire can carry that momentum forward, they can hope to close their season on an optimistic note, with hope for the future.
Baseball, doing better than softball with their current 5-19 record, is nowhere near the success that was anticipated by the team going into the season. Coming off 2015’s low record of 9-27, with only a 3-13 conference record, the team looked forward, hoping to rebuild with the help of a large freshman class. Having lost all but one senior, with the roster stacked against upperclassmen experience, the team hoped they could compensate with raw freshmen talent.
“I think we probably expected more out of the freshman class than was realistic,” senior pitcher Marty Salazar said. “Especially the pitching staff. They’re really talented – I think they’re going to be good still – but I think we may have been a little bit more optimistic than we should have been in the offseason, thinking they would be ready to compete right away.”
Pitching has become a focal point for growth and improvement as the Prairie Fire pitching staff has allowed an average of 28 percent more walks compared to their season’s opponents (124 to 90), while their strikeout success has fallen an average of 30 percent below the competition (138 to 197).
While the batting lineup has an impressive batting average on par with their opponents (3.05 to 3.12), Salazar points to pitchers being unable to successfully strike out batters, resulting in two-strike hits landing second and even third base, hindering the team’s ability to make real progress. “We’re scoring a lot, but we’re giving up even more runs,” he said.
Still learning their strengths and weaknesses, the team continues to shift players around based upon skill levels and experience.
“Something that has proven to be difficult this season is finding the right combination of guys on the field who consistently perform well,” junior pitcher Alec Jordan said. “As a young team we have a lot of young talent that needs to mature and get used to the level of play. This is a process and takes a lot of time to perfect.”
Similar to baseball, according to sophomore Dominique Scott, some of the softball team’s problems are internal.
“We don’t really have team leaders,” said Scott. “And a lot of times, we’re not a team. People have come up to me and have told me that we don’t look like we’re in it together. É When we’re up to bat, we’re one of the quietest teams out there.”
Scott suggested that there have been several schisms within the team, such that everyone is off doing their own thing. Instead of people focusing on things that will better the team, said Scott, a lot of people obsess over statistics and how performance reflects on them, which is an environment conducive to isolation.
Davidson, meanwhile, feels quite differently.
“We’re a family,” said Davidson. “Every year, the team is a little bit different, but in the end they’re always a family. We win as a team, and we lose as a team; everything we do, we do it together, and everything is done in a mindset of not wanting to let your teammates down.”
Scott further suggested difficulties within the coaching staff. Practices, said Scott, are often overly repetitive, such that she has been largely unable to see improvement in her own game. According to Scott, Head Coach Erin Rutledge has often been unable to correct their mistakes on the field, offering the same advice and putting players through the same routines over and over again even though it doesn’t seem to be working.
Scott has had back problems that have limited her playing time and that ultimately cast an uncertain shadow on her future as a softball player. Still, she feels like she isn’t the only one who’s unsure about next year.
“This wasn’t a good season for anyone, really,” said Scott. “Thinking about how we’re going to fix things going into next year, we couldn’t even really do it this year, so who knows if that bond is ever going to be there again?”
The future, for both the remainder of this season as well as future seasons, looks brighter for baseball, still having not yet faced half of their conference matches.
“We’ve been a lot more positive, especially from last year,” junior pitcher Kam Wells said. “Last year was a down season as well and I would say the locker room is a lot different this year, because we’re still in high spirits, we still know we’re a very good baseball team and we’re beating ourselves.”
Despite high spirits, the team has faced many injury-based setbacks this season they did not anticipate. Junior starter and right fielder Paul Sanders broke his hand, forcing him to sit out the remainder of the season, a likely all-conference, all region fielder now a void in the lineup. The position is being filled by a freshman.
Hoping the freshmen on the team gain experience through playing, it is difficult to simulate in practice, slowing the process to eliminate errors.
“We make a lot of errors and at bad times,” Wells explains.
With the team hoping to regain some momentum in the second half of their season, many members are already looking toward the next season, one they feel will finally be their conference tournament comeback.
“I think next year the tides will turn in the conference because Grinnell and Monmouth graduate a lot of seniors and we graduate one,” said Wells, adding, “It’s definitely a little tough to not look forward to next season, because we’re still in this season and we still have games to compete in, but it is hard to not look forward.”