WINONA LAKE – The Grace College softball team experienced its strongest season in 16 years during the 2013 campaign under head coach Heather Johnson by racking up 19 wins.
But the Lady Lancers are equipped to better that mark in 2014 with a dynamic, experienced roster.
Johnson believes the team’s improvements in pitching and defense will complement an already explosive offense.
The Lady Lancers have their strongest core of upperclassmen in recent memory, led by seniors Olivia Winget, Tiffany Featherston and Jordan McKinley. Winget exceled with both her bat (.351 average, 10 home runs) and her pitching arm in 2013 (career-low 4.18 ERA). McKinley (.345 average) and Featherston (.303) are coming off career-best seasons at the plate, and both players are strong defensively as well.
“Our senior class really wants to win,” Johnson said. “They’ve put the work in and have stayed focused which is a good combination.”
The Lady Lancers also boast junior Brooke Shell, who became the second NAIA All-American in program history last spring. The speedy outfielder led the nation in triples in 2013 and set Grace’s record for most hits in a season (77).
Under Johnson’s coaching, Grace has become a deadly team on the base paths. The Lady Lancers topped 100 stolen bases in 2013, leading the Crossroads League and ranking 11th in the NAIA. Johnson believes the 2014 Lady Lancers might be even faster this spring.
“We want to play a very fast, aggressive game. We definitely maintained our speed from last year with some of our new players. If anything we have worked more on speed this offseason,” Johnson said. “One of our sayings is ‘speed never slumps.’ We want to put the ball in play and make things happen.”
Grace should have one of the deeper pitching rotations this spring, particularly with the additions of freshmen Hannah Adams and Allison Franklin. They will join Winget, Alex Shipley, Amanda Bowman and Bridget Poteet in a balanced pitching staff.
The Lady Lancers should also be improved defensively as several newcomers are expected to contribute immediately. Samantha Johnson provides elite speed and an ability to cover plenty of ground in the outfield, and Morgan Hutcheson can also play outfield. Clarissa Knight, Brittany Melzoni and Maribeth Strong each provide defensive cover in the infield.
Grace’s team chemistry grew tremendously in the summer, according to Johnson, when the Lady Lancers went on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic. The team “showed a lot of competitive fire” in Johnson’s opinion and have a tight connection from their international experience.
After coming one out away from advancing to the 2013 NCCAA National Championships last spring, the Lady Lancers are hungry for postseason success. With senior leadership, offensive talent and pitching depth, Grace believes it has the squad to reach its goals in 2014.
“Our depth will be a huge advantage. Our youth are hungry and eager and are pushing everyone else to be better. There are no more moral victories,” Johnson said. “This is the most complete team we’ve had since I’ve been here. Other teams still doubt us and consider [last year] a fluke. But we will continue to stay focused on our style and set the pace for the rest of the league.”
The Lady Lancers will open their season in Tennessee this weekend. Grace will play four games at Martin Methodist before taking a spring break trip to Clermont, Fla., in early March.