The Western Nevada College 2016 softball team is poised to accomplish what no other Wildcat team before it has done: post a winning season and compete on equal footing with the Scenic West Athletic Conference’s top teams.
By the end of last season, the Wildcats were capable of beating any team in the SWAC with a predominantly freshman lineup. They won a program-best 23 games, posted their first winning record at home and won two games in the Region 18 tournament.
A season later, the Wildcats are the most experienced club in the SWAC and primed to produce the program’s best year to date.
“This team definitely is the most talented team that we’ve had in the history of the program,” said WNC coach Leah Wentworth. “It’s been a really exciting year and a half, and we’re really looking forward to what they do this spring. They have all the makings to be a championship team.”
WNC returns nine position players who started at least 11 games a year ago, including three All-Scenic West Athletic Conference selections. Sophomores make up 89 percent of the Wildcats’ roster. Among them are two starting pitchers, including SWAC second-team choice Kristina George.
The team’s chemistry, versatility, supreme depth and improvement have generated high expectations among the coaches and players.
“With this team being all together for our second year now, I feel like we have a great advantage not only with the experience we have together but with the connection we have with each other,” third baseman Briauna Carter said. “This team is capable of amazing things and we are preparing ourselves to leave a legacy. People will remember playing the Wildcats.”
The Wildcats’ dedication and commitment to becoming better offensively and defensively started after the final out at the 2015 regionals.
“When we lost that game at regionals and we were standing in a circle crying, all everybody could say was, ‘This isn’t going to be us next year,’ “ said WNC assistant coach Bethany Henry-Herman. “That was 30 seconds after we had lost. They were already wanting to be back there, to do it again and to do it better.”
The team’s offseason conditioning program rendered successful results during the fall season as the Wildcats’ lone defeat was by a single run to University of Nevada. Even though a cold and wet winter forced the team to practice in a confined indoor facility, the coaches aren’t seeing any signs of regression.
“This team has really challenged us because I’ve always thrown batting practice to the girls and I’m trying to throw as hard as I possibly can from close distances, and I can’t throw it by them,” Wentworth said. “We get so exhausted hitting them lite-flites because we’re trying to hit them as hard as we can and just trying to get them the work that they need to continue to push themselves.”
At the conclusion of her freshman season, George earned the designation of the program’s best-ever pitcher in the eyes of Wentworth. Entering the program in the fall of 2014, Wentworth saw George as a candidate to pitch in relief. George far exceeded those expectations, becoming the ace of a seven-member pitching staff. George finished with a 13-6 regular-season record, including 11 complete games, and a 3.14 earned run average. That success and an army of returners has George eager for the 2016 season.
“I’m excited for this upcoming season,” George said. “I think we have an extremely competitive team this year. We are working really hard to prepare ourselves for a very exciting season. I think we will give everyone in our conference a big eye-opener as to what we can do.”
As surprising as George was to the coaching staff, Wentworth knew what she was getting with shortstop Makaylee Jaussi, a first-team All-SWAC selection. Jaussi stabilized WNC’s middle infield and made difficult plays look routine. The busiest WNC infielder made only nine errors while assisting on 121 outs.
“Her range was already pretty incredible last year and now it’s gotten much better,” Wentworth said. “A lot of it for her is understanding because she is so fast and quick with everything that she does, that sometimes she doesn’t need to be going as fast and rushing everything.”
Jaussi was a multi-faceted contributor on offense as well. She started many rallies by getting on base, then put pressure on pitchers, catchers and infielders with her aggressive base-stealing skills. The leadoff hitter batted .329, accumulated a .418 on-base average, stole 30 bases and scored 43 runs. She didn’t have to rely on her speed to get on base either. Jaussi smacked four homers and 11 doubles, and her .487 slugging average was third on the team.
As pitchers learned last year, the Wildcats’ attack featured much more than Jaussi. Melanie Mecham became one of the team’s and SWAC’S most consistent hitters, leading the Wildcats with a .425 average and fanning only four times in 167 at-bats. The All-SWAC second-team outfielder delivered 71 hits, knocked in 36 runs and scored 35 times.
Mecham also has high expectations for the coming season.
“I think that the fans can expect a lot from us and a better season than the past ones; they can expect a season that WNC has not achieved before,” Mecham said. “We expect a lot from ourselves. We have gotten better in a lot of areas and aspects of the game. We have improved overall as a team this fall, especially if you look at where we were when we began together as a team at the beginning of last season. We want to go out with a bang this season.”
The Wildcats also return their second-leading power hitter from a year ago in Carter. Carter provided six homers and hit .288 during her freshman season.
Other returning players with starting experience include infielder Gabrielle Canibeyaz, third baseman/outfielder Kacie Freudenberger, infielder Kelsie Callahan, first baseman Dakota Robinson, pitcher Kaitlyn Jimmy, outfielder Samantha Bell, catcher Bailey Henderson and outfielder Triniece Lesky.
“It’s tougher to write a lineup than it ever has been because of the depth and the versatility we have,” Wentworth said. “There is not a player on our bench that I don’t think could have been a starter on any other team that we’ve had in the history of the program and that wouldn’t do a great job if given the opportunity as well.”
Freudenberger started 46 games, hitting .328, scoring 21 runs and knocking in 16. Canibeyaz split time at first and second bases and developed into a reliable run producer. She knocked in 23 runs, batted .268 and was fourth on the club with nine doubles. Callahan and Henderson become more comfortable in the Wildcats’ lineup as last season developed. Henderson hit .263 and crossed the plate 14 times, while Callahan batted .250 and blasted seven extra-base hits. Bell, who started 11 games in the outfield, provided spark with her speed and bat, hitting .296 and successfully stealing six bases in seven attempts. Robinson was one of last year’s most versatile players, splitting time between the pitching circle and the outfield. She batted .232, scored nine runs and tossed a complete game. In the offseason, Robinson made a transition to first base.
Henderson and freshman Chelsea Latu are being counted on to replace the team’s outstanding catcher from a year ago, Lauren Lesniak. Wentworth liked what she saw from both catchers during the fall and may platoon them behind the plate.
“Losing Lauren Lesniak is going to be a game changer for us if we don’t have Bailey or Chelsea stepping in and having the same leadership that she brought to the team and to the defense,” Wentworth said.
Wentworth won’t need to overwork George in the circle either. Jimmy, a Carson High School alum, became one of the club’s top pitchers by season’s end and developed more consistency during the fall scrimmage season. She compiled a 2-1 record and completed two of her seven starts in 2015.
“I’m hopeful that Kristina and Kaitlyn can share the same number of innings and that we can get more out of Kaitlyn Jimmy this year, and I’m pretty confident that we will, based on what she’s been doing throughout the fall and up until now,” Wentworth said. “I think we could potentially have two ace pitchers.”
The increased velocity on Jimmy’s fastball and an assortment of off-speed pitches highlighted by nasty curveball should frustrate many hitters.
“She’ll throw a 38-mph ball and come back and throw one in the low 60s,” Henry-Herman said.
The team’s other freshman, McKell Marble, the younger sister of former Wildcat power hitter Taleas Marble, should provide additional pitching depth for the team.
Wentworth and Henry-Herman credited Lesky, Bell and Druelle Kierstead with making the most improvements since last season.
“Triniece came back really hungry for a position, and she’s been fighting every day to be in the lineup,” Wentworth said. “That’s why it’s really hard for us to think of a lineup that she’s not in right now.
“Druelle has made some great adjustments to her offense and defense to be a contender in the lineup. Now, it’s just a matter of her handling the pressure of the game.”
Henry-Herman said that Bell has shown more aggressiveness since her freshman season.
“She was always good but was a timid freshman,” Henry-Herman said. “With her range in the outfield and with the three that we will have out there, there aren’t going to be very many balls dropping, if she stays aggressive.”
In years past, the Wildcats felt it was an accomplishment to steal one game per season from the likes of National Junior College Athletic Association powerhouses Salt Lake and College of Southern Idaho. Now, the Wildcats are expecting much more as they try to break the Bruins’ and Golden Eagles’ stranglehold on the top two spots in the SWAC.
“We can absolutely compete with SLCC and CSI,” George said. “As long as we work together and play hard, I think we will be a tough team to beat.”
Added Wentworth, “As a unit, our goal is to be standing on the field at the end of regional conference playoffs with a trophy in our hands. We’ve talked a lot about that every single game that we step on the field, having an opponent that is faceless and just playing like it’s the championship game and learning more and more about ourselves every time we step on the field, so that when we step into that moment, we are prepared.
“They want to make sure that they finish strong for themselves, for all of the players who came before them and just for the program they all love. They want to go out noticed and make a big name for themselves.”