CONCORDIA, Kansas — The Cloud County Community College softball team begins the 2017 season this Friday and Saturday at the Cowtown Classic in Fort Worth, Texas.
Coming off of a 17-21 overall mark last spring, Cloud County head coach Aaron Acree didn't hesitate when asked what the key will be for the T-Birds to take the next step and be a top contender in a talented Region VI.
"Keep the ball in the ballpark and our infield has to be solid. No errors," Acree said. "I think if we can do that, we'll be fine with what we're doing."
The T-Birds were one of the best in the KJCCC at doing just that last season as they had the sixth best team earned run average (3.57), allowed the third fewest home runs (20), and had the fourth best fielding percentage in the conference at .937.
Leading that effort were four freshmen: right-handed pitcher Bayleigh Cope, the middle infield duo of Leslie Schuetz and Jaycee Worrell, and outfielder Samantha Shafer. All four return for their sophomore seasons and will be, along with fellow sophomore Erin King, relied on to lead a young T-Birds roster.
"Bayleigh Cope on the pitcher's mound is going to be huge for us if she can just do her job, keep the ball in the ballpark, change her speeds and keep people off balance," Acree said. "Worrell and Schuetz in the middle of the infield are big-time players that are really comfortable playing with each other. They have good speed and good arms. Samantha Shafer in right field has great range of motion and a great arm."
Shafer and Worrell were First-Team All-Region VI District D players a season ago. Shafer batted a team-high .383 and stole 10 bases, while Worrell hit .338 with 11 stolen bases and a .953 fielding percentage.
Schuetz and Cope were each Second-Team All-Region VI District D selections. Schuetz batted .351 with team highs in doubles (10) and home runs (4).
In the circle, Cope was Cloud County's ace a season ago, finishing with a 12-8 record, 2.23 earned run average over 131 2/3 innings and a 76-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Where the T-Birds needed help in the offseason was at the plate after finishing in the bottom portion of the conference in runs scored, team batting average and stolen bases.
"We found a lot of offensive help for this year," Acree said. "We're fast, we can play the small ball game, and can come up with the big hits when we need them. With the freshmen we have coming in, we have some great talent that can step in immediately and be contributors."
Some of those freshmen newcomers the likes of outfielder Autumn Adams, twins Marissa Wright and Madison Wright, third baseman Nicole Dinkel, catcher Elise Oberlechner, as well as pitchers Sarah Teufel and Jordan Ummel.
Acree described Oberlechner as a backstop who "controls the game well behind the plate and a good hitter who can manufacture runs." Ummel is expected to be a two-way impactful player as a power bat and power pitcher with "a closer like mentality."
The T-Birds are looking to get off to a strong start this weekend when it opens up the five-game Cowtown Classic tournament with an 11 a.m. matchup on Friday against Vernon College. Cloud County will then take on Des Moines Area Community College at 1 p.m. and Ranger College at 5 p.m. before concluding the tournament with games against Central Community College-Columbus and Seminole State College on Saturday.
"I'd like for us to open up the season by going 3-2 if not 4-1 down in Texas. That's going to be a tough task," Acree said.
As for Cloud County's season aspirations?
"I'd like to see us in the top 4-5 in the conference, which I think we can do if we handle what we can control," Acree said. "We want to finish in the final four of the Region VI Tournament and have a chance to go to the national tournament."