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What does your team do for an encore after it wins a national championship? That is the question facing St. Catharine College softball coach Holly Smith. Ineligible last spring for the post-season in their first season of participation in the NAIA, the Patriots opted to play in the United States Collegiate Athletic Association. And in that tournament Smith’s squad won it all with a dramatic walk-off grand slam in the title game.
Although Smith won’t predict a repeat in the much- tougher NAIA this season, the sixth-year Patriot mentor has high hopes for a big year based on the age-old axiom – be strong up the middle to be successful.
No doubt, the middle is strong for the Patriots as the catcher, shortstop and second baseman, all seniors, are returning for their fourth year in a Patriot uniform. The top pitcher is a junior while the leading contender for centerfield is a sophomore who played in all but three games last season.
“We have excellent leadership from our four seniors,” said Smith. “They are not afraid to speak up. Casey (Crouch) and Megan (Cheuvront) lead by example. Losing this class after this year will be tough”
Crouch and Cheuvront, at shortstop and second base respectively, are a big part of that strength up the middle. Cheuvront was third on the team in hitting last year with a .342 average. Crouch slumped somewhat at the plate at a .232 clip but provided excellent defense. “They have played so long together that they just naturally make a great combination,” added Smith.
Another senior to anchor the middle is catcher Mary Kate Hayes, an excellent defensive backstop who batted .300 last season. She will mostly be taking pitches for junior Amber Matteoli, who was 14-12 last year when the Patriots turned in a 27-25 final record. Sophomore Kasie Prather is battling two others for the starting centerfield spot, but may have the edge in experience with 49 games played last season.
At the corners the Patriots will also return experienced players. Justine Paddock, at first base, batted .470 last season and played in all 52 games. Third baseman Jessica Ricketts had an off-year offensively, but held down the hot corner well on defense. Sophomore Devin Gore will add depth at first base and can also play shortstop.
Who will flank Prather in the outfield is still to be determined. Smith said freshman Chelcie Rein may get the starting nod in right with sophomore Brooke Thompson the likely starter in left.
“The outfield positions are really up in the air right now,” Smith said. “Jackie Schuler (a sophomore who played in 38 games last season) is recovering from shoulder surgery. There are a lot of players in the mix. It just depends on who is hitting at the time”
The mix includes freshman Chelsea Roby, who can also back up Hayes behind the plate, along with freshmen Hagan Goldey and Dani Clark and sophomore Laura Mattingly. “I’m sure Laura will also be used as a designated hitter or pinch hitter who can bring some power off the bench,” Smith added.
Even with the wealth of experience, Smith said she expects other freshmen to compete for playing time. Megan Beecham can step in at first base and can see time on the mound. Ashley Hardin will add depth to the pitching staff, but can also play second base. Erika Adwell may see playing time at both second base and catching while Jenna Murphy can step in at either shortstop or third base.
The fourth senior providing the leadership to which Smith alluded is Candace Harlan, a first baseman who played in 18 games last season. “If I had to name one player that gives everything every game it would be Candace. She will do anything to get better.”
For the Patriots to be even better than last season, Smith said there is one key element. “If we hit, there is not a team on our schedule we can’t beat. We didn’t hit well at all in the fall. We didn’t strike out much, but there were a lot of easy outs.”
St. Catharine is scheduled to start that hitting Friday with a doubleheader at Asbury College. Saturday they travel to Owensboro to take one Brescia, and will play the home opener Tuesday against Oakland City University.