When Fayette opened fall practice on Aug. 4, softball head coach Mike James was pleasantly surprised.
On that gloomy Monday morning, 24 girls arrived at the softball field for the first day of practice. That’s the most James has had in his six years as the Lady Falcons’ head coach, and it more than doubled the number of girls to show up for the first practice a year ago, which was 11.
“I think it’s a direct reflection of the success we had in the second half of the year last year,” James said. “It’s common for people to want to be a part of something that has success.”
Fayette finished the 2013 season with a 9-14 record, but in doing so, the Lady Falcons snapped a postseason drought that dated back to 1995. Fayette won its first district game in 18 years, beating Knob Noster 4-1 in the first round last October.
The Lady Falcons lose just two starters from last year’s team, but both will be a huge loss, offensively and defensively. Kenzie Smentkowski, the only senior on the team, will be playing softball at Graceland University this school year, while Minari Hirokawa returned to Japan after spending one year in Fayette through the Rotary foreign exchange student program.
With seven returning starters — eight, if you count the use of a designated player — James said the increased numbers have pushed the competition for a starting spot, something he said has been a rarity in years past. James said the competition will make this team better.
“We have good numbers in every class,” James said. “We have about the same number of juniors and seniors as we do freshmen and sophomores. And we have a lot of returning players.”
One player who has a position locked down this season is junior Clara Lutz, who returns for her second varsity season as Fayette’s pitcher. Lutz started all 23 games last season on the mound and posted a 3.91 ERA, striking out 97 batters. James said you won’t find a harder worker than Lutz.
“She is relentless with her preparation, and you can see it,” James said. “The thing about her is she is very coachable. Last year, we told her we wanted to limit the walks (allowed), and that’s exactly what she did. She took that to heart, only walking 39 batters. She had a very solid sophomore season.”
James said the team fed off Lutz’s hard work last season, which built the pitcher’s confidence to help Fayette win three of its final five games of the season.
Jena Felten served as the No. 2 pitcher last season, but James said Felten will be unable to pitch this season after injuring her right shoulder. Freshman Kelly Hilgedick will be the starting JV pitcher, as well as the No. 2 varsity pitcher.
Sophomore Maddi Duren will take the spot behind the plate, succeeding Smentkowski, who was an All-Conference, All-District and All-Region catcher. Duren caught for the JV team last season and was also a starter at second base and the outfield on varsity. James said Duren has spent lots of time during the offseason working on blocking balls in the dirt.
“I don’t think we’re going to see a lot of passed balls from her,” James said. “Her arm isn’t quite as strong as what we’ve seen in the past (at catcher), but it’s coming around well. She’s getting better and she’s getting faster.”
Haleigh Strodtman will crack the starting lineup for a third consecutive season to begin her high school career. The junior has primarily been positioned on the left side of the infield and James said he believes he has found Strodtman a permanent spot at third base. Both Strodtman and Lutz were All-Conference honorees a year ago for the Lady Falcons, and Strodtman is also the team’s top returning hitter on offense.
“When a player gets comfortable on defense, it seems to carry over on the offensive side,” James said. “She’s been good for us and I think this year, she has even improved from last year. Her arm is better, she’s moving better, she does better on the backhands and she’s doing much better on the bunts.”
For now, James said he expects those three players to remain at those positions all season. The other six could change at any point this fall, whether it’s from game to game or from week to week.
During the preseason, James said he has been working senior Stacia Wells at shortstop, filling the void left at that position by Hirokawa. Wells has played outfield for the most part in the past and has one of the strongest arms on the team.
“Last year, we did our best to develop some girls for this position at JV,” James said. “We’d really like to put Stacia in the outfield because she’s probably the best outfielder on the team, but she’s got the most experience at shortstop and has done a great job at practice.”
Should James move Wells to the outfield, he said newcomer Natalie Bishop is another candidate at shortstop. The sophomore has blazing speed and the athleticism for a key position like shortstop, James said.
First base was a platooned position for the Lady Falcons last season, and that may very well be the case again this year. Right now, James said the nod will go to senior Rachael Bishop, who started several games at first base n 2013.
“Last year, I really thought Rachael turned the corner offensively and defensively,” James said. “She became our best clutch hitter. When the situation was tight and we had to have somebody come through, I think she came through more often than not. It’s something you can’t teach. You either have it or you don’t.”
However, James said Rachael Bishop is another strong candidate, like Wells, to potentially move to the outfield at some point this season. If it goes that way, players like junior Clara Beaman or sophomore Jena Felten could start either at first base or as the designated player. Because Bishop is the healthiest of the three, James said she will have the nod at first base to start the season. Beaman is coming back from offseason surgery on her ankle.
Going into the summer, James said he had no idea who would be his starting second baseman this fall. But through the first two weeks of practice, he said freshman Samantha Conrow has emerged as a leading candidate at second base.
“We really can’t get a ball past her at second base,” James said. “She can hit a little bit and we’re pretty pleased with her and hopefully she can anchor that spot for the next four years.”
James said senior Lilly Tarakai is also vying for a starting role, perhaps at second base. Natalie Bishop could also find herself some playing time as Fayette’s second sacker.
Anchoring the outfield play for the Lady Falcons in 2014 will be senior Sarah Howell in center field. Howell missed the first half of her junior season, but her return to the field helped solidify Fayette’s outfield defense. James said getting a full season out of Howell would go a long way defensively for the Lady Falcons.
“I don’t think it was a coincidence that our season turned around defensively when she came back healthy (last year),” James said. “Because of her, we were able to put some other girls in better spots. Everything seemed to fall in place when we had Sarah Howell out in center.”
The corner outfield spots are still up for grabs, James said. Tarakai is in the running for left field, as are juniors Ashley Oakley and Kelsey Oakley. Then again, the Oakley sisters are also candidates for right field as well, along with Natalie Bishop. Because of the outfield combination possibilities, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Fayette field at least four or five different defensive lineups in 2014.
James said for those borderline positions, it may come down to which player has the hottest bat or best glove at the time.
To add to the competition, Tiffany Ray returns to the softball team for her senior season and is itching to get into the starting lineup. James said she could be a designated player or, if she doesn’t start, would likely be Fayette’s top pinch hitter off the bench.
“She’s a frontrunner for DP because she bunts well and she makes contact,” James said of Ray. “She’s in the mix for sure.”
Other players competing for varsity playing time this year are freshmen Katrina LeNoir and Jessica Harper. James said both have shown impressive defensive skills at practice and could be defensive substitutions in games or come in as pinch hitters. Sophomores Savanna Gibson and Rebecca Doler have impressed James with their hitting and could get a few varsity at-bats this year. James said all four will most likely start for the JV in the early going, however.
Fayette’s offense showed plenty of improvement from 2012 to 2013. James said a lot of that had to do with plate discipline and forcing pitchers to throw strikes. As a team, the Lady Falcons had a .288 batting average last season, but their on-base percentage soared even higher to .443. Fayette drew 132 walks in 2013, nearly an average of six per game.
“They realize this game is all about getting on base, and it doesn’t matter how,” James said. “If you get on base, it turns the lineup over and it makes the other pitcher work. When you can do that, then good things will happen.”
Losing Smentkowski will be a big blow to Fayette’s power numbers, but James said he has players ready to step up this season. He said he feels really confident in the production of the No. 1-6 hitters in the batting order. Strodtman knocked in 18 runs last year, the second-highest on the team. Lutz provided some power for the middle half of the order. And Duren, in the early going of the season, was Fayette’s leading hitter in 2013.
James ran off a long list of players who have been hitting well this preseason. Playing three games in the Marshall Tournament this weekend will give James a chance to tinker with his lineup and find a strong batting order before the bulk of the schedule arrives in early September.
“I don’t think we’ll have a girl who won’t put the ball in play consistently, and that’s a good sign,” James said.
James said he is also working at transforming a few players to become slap hitters to make for a more diverse batting order. Players like Natalie Bishop, Ashley Oakley, Kelsey Oakley, Tarakai and freshman Hailey Sage are ones that have invested in becoming slap hitters. However, James said it isn’t something that will change the lineup overnight and will be an ongoing process for this team.
“We have more speed this year than we’ve had in years past,” James said. “We have some girls who can fly. Everyone has (made contact slap hitting) off live pitching so far in practice, but it’s a work in progress. We’re going to try to do it as much as we can. If nothing else, we’re going to bunt-and-run more and we’re going to hit-and-run more.”
Fayette saw a few scheduling changes due to a couple of teams that transitioned from fall softball to spring softball. The Lady Falcons will host Jamestown and travel to La Plata and Tolton Catholic to fill those scheduling gaps. In addition, Fayette will play in the Marshall Tournament, which will give the Lady Falcons an opportunity to play some bigger schools on a schedule that consists of mostly Class 1 schools.
Fayette finished in the Lewis & Clark Conference where it has in each of the past five years under James: stuck in fifth place. However, last year it was a three-way tie with both Paris and Slater. James is hopeful this is the season where Fayette takes that next step and can finish in fourth place, and perhaps challenge the perennial top-three powers of the conference in Marceline, Salisbury and Westran.
But it won’t be easy. Westran finished runner up in Class 1 last fall and Marceline and Salisbury both return strong teams again this year. Fayette was outscored 43-1 against those three teams last season. However, James said the lopsided scoring should end this year.
“The Lewis & Clark is just a tough, athletic conference in every sport,” James said. “The traditional powers just always seem to reload. Last year, I thought we were the fourth-best team, even though we ended up in fifth (place). We want to finish better this year than we did last year, whether that be fourth or even third. I do think we’re closer to the upper-echelon teams now than we have been.”
The biggest offseason news that affected Fayette just happened on Friday. After spending the past several seasons playing at the Class 2 level, Fayette will be a Class 1 softball program for at least the next two seasons.
MSHSAA revealed its softball district assignments on Friday morning and Fayette will be in District 9. The Lady Falcons will join some familiar opponents in the district, which includes Glasgow, Jamestown, New Franklin, Pilot Grove and Prairie Home.
No more going to Higginsville to play districts against teams that Fayette only gets to see in October. Four of the five district teams are already on Fayette’s schedule and the Lady Falcons will play their postseason games much closer to home, for the next two seasons, at least.
“It’s always nice to have some change,” James said. “We were getting better in our old district and it was nice to pull off that upset last year. But the teams we are playing now are closer to our talent level. That being said, it’s not going to be easy. It has a traditional powerhouse in New Franklin, Pilot Grove is going to be one of the better teams in the area, Jamestown is always decent and Glasgow has been good the last five years. It’s going to be difficult.”