By Murray Evans
TROUTVILLE, Va. (May 14, 2014) – There were so many unknowns for Oklahoma Christian when the 2014 softball season began. How would the Lady Eagles’ freshmen pitchers develop? How would the team fare against one of its most challenging schedules ever? Could OC’s potent offense keep it going?
All of those questions were answered in a positive way for OC, which is why the Lady Eagles are in southwest Virginia this week, ready to play in the National Christian College Athletic Association Championship.
The 10-team, double-elimination event will start Thursday, with second-seeded OC (39-14) to face the winner of an earlier game between seventh-seeded Campbellsville (Ky.) and 10th-seeded Mississippi College. OC senior center fielder Sarah Endres acknowledges a bit of surprise that she and her teammates are in their current position.
“I think we all thought, at the very beginning of the season, this wasn’t a reality, making it to the national tournament,” Endres said. “It never occurred to me that we’d be able to do this. I think we’re all in shock that we’re doing this. This is probably the most exciting tournament we’ve ever played in.”
OC will be making only its third national-tournament appearance, joining the 2002 and 2003 squads (which played in the NAIA tournament those years) in that exclusive category. Other OC squads have come agonizingly close before, only to fall a game or two short. That included last year’s squad, which went 22-22 and lost in the NCCAA Central Region title game to Central Baptist (Ark.).
But this year’s team entered the regional tournament more prepared – and with a solid pitching staff, led by freshman ace Shea Coats, who at 22-2 with a 1.46 ERA already is among the elite hurlers at the NCAA Division II level. Coats, the NCCAA Central Region’s pitcher of the year, and fellow freshman Haley Squier bolstered a staff that included junior returnees Taylor Mosher and Krystal Rodriguez.
Coats, Squier and Mosher each pitched at least one complete game in the region tournament, with Coats beating Central Baptist 5-2 in the title game to qualify the Lady Eagles for the national tournament.
“We have four very different pitchers,” Endres said. “When they come in, it’s something (opponents) haven’t seen before.”
OC’s offense this season – coming off a strong 2013 campaign – actually improved. The catching-designated player tandem of senior Martha Thomas (.433, 13 home runs, 50 RBIs) – the NCCAA Central Region hitter of the year – and freshman Niki Davidson (.397, three home runs,34 RBIs) has proven almost unstoppable at times. Three other everyday starters – left fielder Courtney Starr, shortstop Kendra Pierce and third baseman Kala Ratliff – all are hitting over .300.
The Lady Eagles are so deep offensively that their two top pinch-hitters also have outstanding batting averages. Sophomore Danielle Collins is hitting .407 with three home runs while freshman Jordan Chism is hitting .326, giving Heath options at critical points in games.
OC also is a threat on the basepaths, with speedsters Endres, second baseman Monique Elliott and right fielder Lauren Chatigny combining for 47 of the Lady Eagles’ 100 stolen bases this season.
Simply put, OC is a well-rounded team with veteran leadership by six seniors – Thomas, Endres, Chatigny, Ratliff, first baseman Lauren Pittman and catcher Krista Martony.
“We’ve got a very competitive team,” said OC coach Tom Heath, the NCCAA Central Region coach of the year. “Not a whole lot has to be said to get them motivated. They’re pretty fired up any time they go compete. And they will go compete. Nobody will be scared of anything. We’ll just take it like any other game and do their best.”
In a large double-elimination tournament, the key for the Lady Eagles will be staying in the winners’ bracket. A win in their game Thursday would propel OC into a matchup against either third-seeded Azusa Pacific (Calif.) or sixth-seeded and defending NCCAA champion Union (Tenn.). Win that and OC could face top-seeded Shorter (Ga.) in the winners’ bracket finale on Friday.
An early loss would send the Lady Eagles into the losers’ bracket, in which they would face potentially three games on Friday and three more on Saturday.
OC’s challenging schedule – which has included wins over defending NCAA Division II champion Central Oklahoma and a pair of top-25 Division II teams in Emporia State (Kan.) and St. Mary’s (Texas), as well as a series win at NCAA Division I Abilene Christian – has prepared the Lady Eagles.
The Lady Eagles have fared well against their challenging schedule, finishing third in the Division II Heartland Conference, and enter the national tournament having won 26 of their last 29 games.
“We’re not going to see any better pitching than what we’ve already seen,” Heath said. “We won’t face better hitters than we’ve already faced. It will be a matter of playing our game, playing our ‘A’ game, a matter of putting this team on the field and playing our best. We are playing well at the right time.”
If the Lady Eagles’ strong play of late continues, anything could happen, and the players are determined to make that happen, Endres said.
Endres said the players “picked a great time to all mesh together – at the end of the season. That’s what anyone wants. We picked the best time to come together and get this done.”