This time around they won’t be satisfied unless they are posing Saturday with the championship trophy which guarantees a berth in the NCAA Tournament. That first victory didn’t happen until the Lady Bisons fourth trip to the tournament. In their fifth postseason trip in the past six seasons, and fourth in a row, they are the No. 1 seed.
The first game of the tournament is Thursday morning at 10 against No. 6 seeded Campbell at Patricia Wilson Field at Stetson University. Campbell has won the tournament championship the past two seasons. This will be the first time the Lady Bisons have played Campbell in the tournament.
“Legitimately, anyone in our conference can win this,” Lady Bisons coach Kristin Ryman said Wednesday morning after practice. “We have seen that over the last few years. Six seeds have challenged No. 1 seeds and No. 4 and No. 5 seeds have done the same thing.
“We have enough respect for all the teams here. We know that if we are off a little bit any team is talented enough to put things together at the right time. We know that any team can step up. We have to be on top of our game.”
The Lady Bisons return every starter from last season. Six of their players, infielders Kellie Sirus, Abby Keese and Courtney Billington; catcher Mollie Mitchell; center fielder Lauren Dortwegt; and pitcher Whitney Kiihnl; were named First Team All A-Sun. Kiihnl was named both Player of the Year and Pitcher of the Year. Ryman was chosen as Coach of the Year.
“Maturity has been one of the difference makers for us from last year to this year,” Ryman said. “Our seniors led as juniors last season and they also led as freshmen and sophomores. They have been such good examples for the younger girls.”
The Lady Bisons have received votes for the top 25 most of the season. They received 48 votes in the Ultimate College Softball poll and five votes in the USA Today/National Fastpitch Coaches Association poll this week. They also are 42nd in the NCAA RPI rankings.
With their maturity, bolstered by their 44-10 record and A-Sun regular season championship with an 18-2 mark, the Lady Bisons also have a heightened sense of confidence.
“They expect to win,” Ryman said. “Last year they expected to win up to a certain point. After that point they hoped to win and hoped to challenge.
“But the mentality all year long is that they have expected to win every time out regardless of whom we play. They know they have a shot to win every game so their approach has been why not expect to win.”
Heat is a factor: Temperatures this week here in Central Florida are expected to be near the 90 degree mark during the day, dropping into the high 60s at night. The Lady Bisons got a taste of the heat Wednesday morning during their practice session.
“I can’t believe I used to play five games in day in heat like this,” Kellie Sirus, a native of Sarasota, Fla., said after the workout.
Multi-faceted players: Kiihnl was honored for abilities as both a pitcher and hitter by the conference coaches, but Ryman views senior third baseman Christen Campbell, who also doubles as a pitcher, and Billington as multi-talented players.
“Courtney is so well-rounded,” Ryman said. “She runs well. She is a hitter. She is a five-tool type player just like Whitney.
“Athletically, Christen is one of the better all-around players in the conference like Whitney and Courtney. I think that a lot of times she gets overlooked because she is not our top pitcher or our top hitter. But when you combine her hitting and pitching numbers she has done as a good a job as anyone on this team. I think she is definitely an all-conference caliber player. I hate it for her that she wasn’t selected.”
It is a rarity today to find players that are multi-dimensional.
“There are so many kids out there who play like robots,” Ryman said. “They aren’t taught to read the game and just play the game. We try to emphasize that so much.
“We want them to read the game without us having to tell them exactly what to do when the ball is hit. There are all types of things that factor into each play.”
Dortwegt anchors outfield: Ryman calls Dortwegt the center piece of the outfield. On the left side of the field junior Mackenzie Tucker has put together her best season. On the right side sophomore Caroline Mason and freshman Bree Thurman have been splitting time at the position.
“Caroline and Bree are ready at a moment’s notice to play,” Ryman said. “They want to be in the line-up and on the field. When Caroline was injured Bree stepped in.
“Bree provides a lot of speed in the outfield. She has a good arm. She is learning on the fly at the plate. Caroline is looking more confident and comfortable at the plate. They are both pushing each other.”
Tucker’s numbers may not be eye openers, but Ryman stresses that her contributions to the team go beyond the stats.
“Mackenzie is coming into her own in left as far as contributing every day. Her confidence is way up this season. She doesn’t have standout numbers but she does her job. She moves runners when we need her to do it. She gets the big at bats when we need them.”
Around DeLand: The Lady Bisons had lunch at Firehouse Subs and dinner at The Olive Garden. “We’ve always eaten pasta before games,” Ryman said.
After lunch senior pitcher Alaina Jacobson was spending some extra time working out by taking a run through the parking lot.
Ryman was pleased with the last tune-up before the tournament.
“We had a great practice,” Ryman said. “We spent some time getting reacquainted with the field here. We also spend about 30 minutes hitting.”
Written by Mark McGee, Senior Publisher/Director of Media Relations.