Last season was the most successful ever for the Lipscomb Lady Bisons softball team.
They won both the Atlantic Sun regular season and tournament titles and advanced to the finals of the NCAA Tuscaloosa Regional, losing to host Alabama. They set a new school record for victories with 50. Pitcher Whitney Kiihnl was named both the A-Sun Pitcher and Player of the Year.
Softball practice officially opened Monday. One thing that coach Kristin Ryman, the 2010 A-Sun Coach of the Year, doesn’t plan to do is use last year’s accomplishments as a motivation for this year’s team.
“We are excited about things that happened last year, but this year’s team is different,” Ryman said. “We have to play to the strengths of this group.
“There is a difference in the experience level. They will make some mistakes along the way. We expect some good things from this group, but we will expect even more from them in years to come.”
Ryman is building a program of success, not just attempting to put together a series of good teams.
“We want to create a program that has expectations year after year of being in the NCAA Tournament,” Ryman said. “When I think of a program I think of multiple years of really good team chemistry, really good success on the field and off including academic success.
“There are a lot things in building a program that go beyond wins and losses and go beyond one single year. We are going to remember last year. It is a big part of our history here. But it is in the past. We want to move forward and get back to the NCAA Tournament a second time.”
The 2010 team played with confidence and composure led by seniors Kellie Sirus, Abby Keese, Lauren Dortwegt, Christen Campbell, Alaina Jacobson and Christy Grisham.
This year’s team has some talented players returning such as Kiihnl, All A-Sun First Team shortstop Courtney Billington and All A-Sun First Team catcher Mollie Mitchell.
“Most of last year’s team had been on the field for a minimum of two full years together and some of them for four,” Ryman said. “That’s hard to reproduce from year-to-year.
“This team is younger. There is not as much cohesiveness because for many of them it is their first year to play together. But this team has come together well on the field and off.”
Ryman likes what she saw from the team in the fall defensively. With the first two practices held inside McQuiddy Gym defense is hard to gauge at this point of spring drills.
Offensively, several of the same hitters return from last season.
Seven freshmen will also be searching for playing time this season.
“There was so much emphasis on our senior hitters last year,” Ryman said. “But a player who gets overlooked is Courtney Billington. She led out team in hitting.”
Billington, a junior who made the move from second base to shortstop last season, led the Lady Bisons with a .373 average.
“Courtney is very consistent and she does have home run power,” Ryman said. “She is an extremely good gap-to-gap doubles hitter. We will also be looking for her to play an even bigger leadership role.”
Ryman will also be counting on Mitchell, a junior, to give the team direction both on and off of the field.
“Mollie plays such a crucial role in the leadership of our team,” Ryman said. “She has really done a great job with the younger players in getting them to understand what our program is about.”
Senior outfielder Mackenzie Tucker is another player Ryman is counting on in terms of playing at a higher level.
“Mackenzie has flown under the radar a little bit,” Ryman said. “She has really stepped up leadership-wise with our girls. She wants that role. She wants to be relied on even more. She is 100 percent up for it.”
One of the “wild cards” this season will be catcher-first baseman Vanessa Medina. In the first 10 games of the 2010 season Medina was batting .364 with two doubles, two home runs and seven runs batted. She injured her knee and missed the rest of the season as a redshirt. The question is whether she can resume her strong play at the plate this season.
“She has looked really good in practice,” Ryman said. “Getting back into a game mode and getting that confidence back at the plate are keys for her.
“If she gets those things back, especially early on, that’s going to be huge for the middle part of our order.”
Sophomore Brea Thurman also appears to be ready to be a factor in all facets of the game.
“She stood out athletically in the freshmen group last season,” Ryman said. “She had a little bit of a slow start, but she turned it on the rest of the fall and in the time we have been back this spring.
“She is swinging extremely well and growing more and more in the outfield every day. She is a smart player. She is hard-nosed. She is very competitive. She is probably her own toughest critic.”
Kiihnl is only starting her third year as a pitcher for the Lady Bisons. She was 33-5, including 12 shutouts last season.
She posted a 0.95 earned run average and 344 strikeouts in 237 innings pitched. Teams batted .120 against her. She is already one of the most honored athletes in the history of the program.
“We are going to rely on Whitney even more than we did last year because we have a young pitching staff,” Ryman said. “She is going to throw the bulk of the innings again.
“I think that mentally she is ready for that. She understands the difference in our team from last year to this year, especially the pitching staff. She knows we are going to be relying on her more.”
Written by Mark McGee, Senior Publisher/Director of Media Relations.