Improved offense expected to help HCC SB

For a good portion of Jaime Rose's tenure as head coach of the Hutchinson Community College softball team, offense hasn't been a problem for the Lady Dragons.
Over the last two seasons, that statement hasn't always been the case. So in looking at how to improve her team's offense for the 2014 season, Rose decided to change things up a little and go to a "non-traditional" lineup.
Rose will begin to see what dividends those changes will pay when the Lady Dragons open the 2014 season on Saturday at Northern Oklahoma College-Enid. Originally scheduled for Tuesday, Saturday's doubleheader in Enid begins at 1 p.m.
"I am really confident in this team," said Rose, whose nine-year record at Hutchinson is 256-217 and 11-year career record is 294-267. "Offensively, we have a lot more power than we did last year and we have a lot more speed. I can honestly say one through nine, we can hit the ball."
The offensive numbers for the 2013 Lady Dragons were a bit deceiving after posting a 22-22 season that ended in the in the Region VI Tournament with close losses to Cowley and Independence.
Overall, the Lady Dragons hit .336 as a team and averaged 6.4 runs per game. But HCC scored 2 or less runs 11 times and had five or less hits 12 times. One of the main reasons for the inconsistent showings was injuries, especially to slugger Megan Short, who played in just five games before being lost for the season.
"The injuries really hurt us big time," Rose said. "I know that this year, we have the ability to hit throughout the whole lineup. We should be more consistent and more consistent throughout the lineup to we don't have to depend on the top half so much."
The Lady Dragons return their best hitter from 2013 in third baseman Makenzi Shackley (Olathe). She hit .474 with 68 total hits, 18 extra-base hits, four home runs and a team-high 43 RBIs. She will bat in the No. 3 spot in the order.
The Lady Dragons had slated sophomore Rylee Nave (Enid., Okla.) in the clean-up spot, but after an injury in the fall, Nave was thought to be lost for the season. While she isn't cleared to throw yet, Nave will be the designated player and bat cleanup. Last season Nave hit .364 with 43 hits, two homers and 24 RBIs.
Where Rose will change things up in 2014 is split her two legitimate leadoff hitters in the order. Freshman Lacey Hudson will hit in the leadoff spot to start the season, but last season's leadoff hitter, Asia Budd (.283, 4 HRs, 9-9 SB, .325 on-base percentage) will hit seventh in the line-up.
"We are getting away from a so-called traditional order," Rose explained. "Lacey is one of our best hitters and we are going to take a different approach for her. She hit four-hole for us in the fall and with moving her to leadoff, that's going to give her roughly 20 more at-bats this season. The kids at the bottom of the order should set her up to drive in runs as well as get on base. Asia has some pop in her bat that I think will help us with her down in the order."
Position Breakdown
A pair of sophomore right-handers will lead what could be a deep pitching staff. Only one of those sophomores is healthy.
Kaila Pickens (Enid, Okla.) will have the season-opening start in her home town on Saturday. The other sophomore, Sidney Dey (El Dorado) will be on the shelf at least for the first two months of the season. Dey was HCC's staff ace in 2013 as a freshman, posting a 10-7 record with a 4.61 ERA. She struck out 80 and walked 31 in 92 2/3 innings pitched.
"We have a good mix of kids," Rose said of her pitchers. Kaila is back after having a good year. We have three freshmen who have all been great; all bring different aspects of pitching to our team. We are still hopeful that we will get Sidney back in the middle of the season."
Right-hander Natalie Johnson (Fort Worth, Texas), left-hander Brittany Olender (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada) and right-hander Natalie Sebastian (Hutchinson) are the three freshmen who Rose is very high one.
Olender is scheduled to start Game 2 on Saturday in Enid.
"Of the pitchers that we have, Brittany throws the hardest," Rose said. "Natalie Johnson is a power pitcher and Natalie Sebastian is a finesse pitcher. We really would like to throw her after using Brittany and Natalie. There is a big difference."
Rose will start a freshman behind the plate in Hutchinson native Sarah Rothe.
"She is the strongest arm on our team behind the plate. She has good pop in the bat and Sarah has won that position. It's been more than a couple of years that we've had a catcher who will make you think twice before running on her."
Last year, Hutchinson threw out only 6 of 67 basestealers.
Sophomore Shelby Smith and Taylor Baaker will also fill in behind the plate.
In addition to re-working the batting order, Rose has also changed up the defense and is using several converted players as everyday position players.
Smith (Sand Spring, Okla.) is converting to first base for Hutchinson this season. As a freshman Smith was a .317 hitter with a home run and 16 RBIs. She is slated to hit fifth in the order.
Smith made the move to first base just a couple of weeks ago and hasn't gotten much time at the position. As a catcher last season, she was a solid receiver, which will help ease the transition to first base.
"Shelby has been hitting the ball very hard and we had to find a place to put her," Rose said. "We give her a couple of weeks to get comfortable and get some games under her belt and she will be a lot more comfortable."
Up the middle will be a pair of freshmen.
Rose describes her second baseman in Tayler Suhler (Hesston) as "blue collar" who is a very solid defensive player. Hudson (Enid, Okla.) will play short and hit leadoff.
"You can tell that Tayler is a two defensive second baseman," Rose said. 'Lacey has very good range at short."
Shackli will again be at third base. She looks to improve her .863 fielding percentage this season.
Two of the three outfielders will be converted players.
Baaker (Chugiak, Alaska) will open the season in left field. Budd returns to patrol center field and freshman Kailey Jenkins (Wellington) will start in right.
"Outfield is an area where we are a little short right now," Rose said. "Taylor is one of the fastest players on our team. Asia is the second-fastest kid. She had a good arm and will run any ball down."
Jenkins is a converted catcher/first baseman.
"She hits the ball very hard and she is the most versatile kid on our team," Rose said. "We had to find a place for her in the lineup."
One of the biggest reasons why Rose is confident in the 2014 Lady Dragons is their cohesiveness and chemistry. Both of those facets were question marks in 2012 and 2013, but sub-par years in the Lady Dragon head coach's mind.
"This is a very good group of kids who have bought into the system this coaching staff is trying to teach," Rose said. "They want to play and they like being around each other. They have bought into the concept that we will sacrifice for the team."
The first eight games of the 2014 season will be played on the road at Enid, Great Bend, Garden City and a regional-opening doubleheader at Salina against Brown Mackie. The Lady Dragons open at home on Feb. 27 against the Sterling College JV beginning at 4 p.m.