CONCORDIA, Kansas — The Cloud County Community College softball team finished the 2018 season with a flurry, winning 11 of 14 games en route to its first appearance in the Region VI DII District E Championships since 2014.
Armed with six returners from last year's squad that posted a 21-22 overall record, the T-Birds are hopeful they can build on their strong finish a year ago when they take to the diamond again this spring, starting next Wednesday on the road against Hutchinson Community College. Cloud County was originally scheduled to open up at home on Tuesday, February 12 against Central Community College-Columbus but those games have been cancelled due to inclement weather.
For a repeat performance in 2019, the T-Birds have made it a top priority to improve an offense that ranked 12th in the Region VI with a .259 batting average and 186 runs score.
Head coach Aaron Acree said the construction of the new on-campus Dunning-Hamel Baseball Training Facility last March has already paid dividends in that area.
Cloud County was originally scheduled to open up at home on Tuesday, February 12 against Central Community College-Columbus but those games have been cancelled due to weather. The T-Birds will instead open up 2019 at 2 and 4 p.m. next Wednesday on the road against Hutchinson.
"The new indoor facility has made a tremendous difference," Acree said. "I think our pitchers and hitters will be right on line with where they need to be to start the year. We're a heck of a lot better at hitting our location and our hitting has really improve, which is exciting because that was the area we struggled in last season. We have to get our offense going immediately and that's something we've been stressing."
The first step in generating more runs in 2019 is Cloud County's focus on limiting strikeouts. The team ranked 10th in strikeouts a season ago with an even 200 and has worked diligently on improving its contact rate and situational awareness in the batter's box.
"We had so many strikeouts last year that our big emphasis has been on making sure we get the ball in play," Acree said. "I think we're so much better in that category and understanding what we're supposed to do at the plate. We've worked a lot more on hit-and-run and understanding what to do with the ball, where to take it depending on pitch location."
Gillen had a solid freshman season atop the T-Birds' batting order, finishing with a .279 average and 30 runs scored from the leadoff spot, while Corpus (.271), Schraad (.240), Bowers, Hammond and Leakey, all of whom are skilled defensively, have shown positive steps heading into the spring.
McCown, a designated hitter and third baseman out of Fairbury, Nebraska, is an intriguing bat Acree said could add some much needed thump in the middle of the Cloud County batting order.
"When she gets ahold of one, it travels," Acree said. "She's probably the best power hitter we've had here in a while. We've changed some things with her swing, tried to get some of the loft out of it, and right now the ball is jumping off her bat."
Cloud County also has the luxury of a deep and versatile roster; a component to this year's squad that Acree said he hopes breeds competition and allows the T-Birds to play the hot hand as the season progresses.
"We have some very good position battles and are at least two players deep at every position, which creates some competitive and will push players to perform well," Acree said.
That depth will also be tested on the mound as the T-Birds have the task of replacing their ace Jordan Ummel, a First-Team All-Conference and All-Region VI player a season ago who graduated with an 18-8 career record and miniscule 1.65 earned run average.
Hammond, who tied Ummel for the team-lead in wins last season with 10 and posted a 4.89 earned run average, will look a four-person staff that also includes freshman Mattison Hogrefe, Marcotte and Corpus.
Hogrefe has seen an uptick of 3-4 miles per hour in velocity so far this year and profiles as a reliever, with her biggest weapon being a devastating rise ball. As for Marcotte, she is projected to join Hammond as a starter and features a repertoire of a 58-59 mile per hour fastball and a drop ball.
"We're going to have to have an arsenal," Acree said about replacing Ummel. "I've kind of broken it down with the girls that, if we can get our starters to go 4-5 innings then have someone else come in relief, that's how we're going to have to do it. And we're going to have to play solid defense behind our pitchers."
Freshman catcher Emily Wells will be a key component in Cloud County's pitching success as well as she is expected to handle the starting catcher duties. Wells and Leakey will form the backstop tandem that will take over following the graduation of Kayla West.
"Emily has maintained a steadiness behind the plate. She is very intelligent and intuitive about the game," Acree said. "She has a great arm, controls the running game and every team we faced over the fall their coaches were telling us she was one of the better catchers they've seen, so that has been encouraging."
If the new pieces can gel, Acree said he is hopeful this year's team can find its way back to Topeka for the Region VI DII District E Championships.
The first few weeks of the regular season will serve as a great litmus test for the T-Birds for Region VI action.
Cloud County opens the season on the road against Hutchinson, a former Division II power that has moved up to Division I this season, then travesl to the Cowtown Classic on Feb. 15-16, followed by its home tournament, the Cloud County Spring Classic, the first weekend of March.
"Our first three weeks of the season will be really tough and we'll have a tough tournament here again this season with Iowa Lakes, Highland, Iowa Central and Kirkwood coming in," Acree said. "Those three Iowa teams are all top teams in their conference so it's a good building block for what we'll face in the Jayhawk Conference."