Softball Preview: EXPERIENCE BREEDS SUCCESS
By BRANDON HURLEY
Youth often gives way to victories as the years tick away.
That’s at least the mantra the Greene County softball team will rally behind this summer for a shortened regular season.
The Rams return all but two athletes from a team that bounced back from an 0-8 to win 10 games in their final 20 contests, a .500 recovery that looked nearly impossible a few weeks into the season.
Back are eight of Greene County’s top 10 hitters from a year ago, which included three eighth-graders and a pair of freshmen. Seven of their top eight run-producers return, including freshman Emma Hoyle, who led the Rams with 25 RBI.
Sophomore Carmyn Paup tallied 17 RBI last fall (third-most on the team) while junior Karissa Stephenson was not far behind with 16 runs batted in.
Senior Izzy Bravard was second on the team in total hits with 31 while Hoyle and Tieryn Tucker tied for fourth with 22. Bravard also tied for second with 22 runs scored while Tucker (14) and Hoyle were fourth and fifth, respectively. In fact, eight of Greene County’s top 10 run scoring athletes return this season.
Hoyle was the Rams’ staff ace as an eighth-grader a year ago, picking up all 10 of Greene County’s wins will maintaining an ERA of 4.88 to go with 51 strikeouts.
The cupboards are rich with talent in 2020 and Greene County is primed to strike it big. The most glaring gain has been placing trust in their own talent, Greene County softball coach Tom Kennedy said, especially from the handful of eighth-graders who saw significant action last summer.
“I’ve seen a big jump with my eighth graders that played a lot last year,” Kennedy said. “They have a lot more confidence in themselves then they did last year. Our whole team’s been that way actually because we were fairly young.”
Admittedly, this won’t be a typical softball season. The Rams and the entire state of Iowa were restricted from any school-sanctioned sporting events or practices until June 1 due to the Coronavirus outbreak.
Governor Kim Reynolds, who shuttered the school year and high school sports in mid-March, lifted her ban back on May 20, ending a two-month hiatus and igniting joy throughout the local school district. It caught Kennedy a little bit off guard, though he was thrilled to return to the diamond to coach an up and coming unit.
“I was pleasantly surprised. I didn’t think that we were going to get to have this season,” the coach said. “I had kind of prepared myself not to have it and now I’m excited.”
Once the shock wore off, it was back to business. Kennedy brought his girls together, virtually of course, and prepared them for the first practice on June.
“I think a lot of them were excited about it,” Kennedy said. “I’m happy for the seniors. It’s an opportunity for them to finish on a little more normal note than what they’ve had to deal with. We’re hoping for a good year for them.”
The silver lining of this truncated schedule, Kennedy said, is he’s able to fit two weeks of practice in with his entire squad. Usually, it’s not until games begin in May when he has every girl out on the diamond, thanks to prior obligations with track and field, golf and soccer.
The Rams will lean on their pitching this summer. Hoyle notched double-digit wins in the pitcher’s circle as an eighth-grader. She’s taken a big leap this year, Kennedy said, and Greene County will go as far as she takes them.
“She’s improved a lot this year. That’s where you start in softball,” Kennedy said. “You have to be good on the mound to be competitive, and I think our defense around them will be solid and will be better.”
Though the Rams need to replace a pair of four-year defensive starters in departed center fielder Megan Carey and shortstop Jenna Beyers, Kennedy believes his team is deep enough to plug those gaps.
“We have enough girls that have matured and got better that we’re hoping to still be good defensively,” the coach said. “I think that’ll be our strength.”
Hoyle will enjoy the benefit of a slight pitching rule tweak, one coach Kennedy said is the most significant change he’s seen in a decade. Pitchers can now step behind the mound when beginning their pitching motion. It’s a big win for the defense in an era when softball has been producing regular advantages for the batter as offensive outbursts sky-rocketed.
This rule change levels the playing field a bit more, Kennedy said.
“Now, (pitchers) can go back to forward, which allows them to create a little more momentum and should let them throw a little harder,” Kennedy said. “I think softball was getting pretty offensive. The game was dominated by pitchers when the mound moved from 40 feet to 43 feet, and it’s become more of a hitting game now. I think they needed to even it up and let the pitchers have some of the advantages back. I think it’s good for softball.”
Greene County’s hitting will come along in the next month, Kennedy admitted. He’s encouraging his girls to really cut down on the strikeouts and make contact. That comes with the territory when adjusting to the varsity level. Ten of Greene County’s athletes were sophomores or younger last summer, which really showed in their strikeout rate. The Rams tallied a total of 117 strikeouts as a team but still managed to produce a composite average of .278. The Rams view last year’s team contact rate as a positive, with plenty of opportunity for growth. Showing more patience is key to eliminating the whiffs, Kennedy said.
“This year, we’re going to focus on trying to put (the ball) in play,” the coach said. “Good things happen when you put it in play. We’re going to really try to cut down on our strikeouts.”
Overall, softball is a game of inches. One small mishap can lead to a string of errors, whether that’s a poor base-running decision or a misjudged pop fly or an overthrow. Greene County must put it all together in hopes of achieving their first winning season in four years. Limiting mistakes will allow the Rams to stick with their opponents more often than not. In an effort to increase their run production, Kennedy has his girls working on small ball tactics, laying down bunts and honing their base running. The more chances they create, the higher probability they’ll score runs.
“We’re just going to have to do the small things,” Kennedy said. “We’re trying to work on being a good bunting team. It’s something that we’re not very good at right now, but we’re hoping to get better. We might have to try to find ways to score runs. But hopefully, if we pitch well enough, we can stay in games.”
Once his girls take to the diamond Monday, June 15 in their season opener against Saydel, the importance of opportunity will be of the utmost priority. It certainly won’t be a normal season, and the athletes should cherish the moment. Making a charge at the state tournament would be a welcome surprise, but using softball as a temporary escape will have nothing but positive effects for the Greene County squad.
“I’m going to emphasize that this is an opportunity that maybe we have taken for granted in the past,” Kennedy said. “With all the things that have happened the last couple months, maybe we can really appreciate this and enjoy it.
It’s an opportunity for us to get together to entertain and have fun.
Hopefully, the best way to enjoy it is to have some wins with it. But, you know, it’s not about wins and losses, it’s about getting together with their friends, and maybe that’ll be a little more evident to them.”
Greene County opens their season Monday at 7 p.m. in Des Moines against the Saydel Eagles. The Rams will host their season-opener Wednesday, June 17 against South Hamilton.
2020 Greene County Softball Schedule (All games start at 7 p.m. Home are in bold)
Friday, June 19 - at Gilbert
Monday, June 22 - vs. North Polk
Wednesday, June 24 - at PCM (Monroe)
Thursday, June 25 - at Roland-Story (Roland)
Monday, June 29 - vs. Nevada
Wednesday, July 1 - vs. Saydel
Thursday, July 2 - at South Hamilton (Jewell)
Friday, July 3 - vs. Gilbert
Monday, July 6 - at North Polk (Alleman)
Wednesday, July 8 - vs. PCM
Thursday, July 9 - vs. Roland-Story
Monday, July 13 - at Nevada