When last we saw our Tigers against competition (with no offense to the Fall Foes), they were dropping two games to old rival Nebraska in the Columbia Regional. Turns out, the task of overcoming Tori Finucain’s late-season injury was too much. While the now-departed Casey Stangel and now-graduated Alora Marble did what they could, they could not help the on-again, off-again offense of the Tigers. Before we look ahead to 2015, and with some distance on 2014, what are your take-aways from the last season as a whole and what about 2104 gives you hope/excitement as we start to turn our gaze towards 2015?
2014 was an interesting season, in which the Tigers managed to emerge as legitimate SEC champion candidates despite it being a "rebuilding year". In addition to the injury and Regional loss, there was the transfer of four Tigers, including pitcher Casey Stangel and 2B Kelli Schkade; the discovery of Taylor Gadbois as a lead-off slap hitter extraordinaire; the promise of another great Fleming; and of course the yearly "Coach Earleywine rubs people the wrong way" business.
What I took away from the season was that pitching needs to be strengthened. We've seen that story before with Chelsea Thomas - Mizzou's #1 is hurt at the most inopportune time, and the #2/3 pitchers simply aren't of a quality to compete against tournament-level talent. Additionally, I think there was a feeling by the end of the season that the lineup needed more power. Only Mississippi State hit fewer home runs than Mizzou last year, and the need to string hits (and extra base hits) together in order to score eventually caught up to the Tigers.
However, 2014 also provided much to be excited about. For one, there is going to be some serious senior talent - and leadership - on the 2015 squad. The leader will be notorious keeper-of-the-hate Corrin Genovese, whose .410 average on the season was 2nd only to Taylor Gadbois. Angela Randazzo (.349/7/43) will hope to continue her solid hitting, and we will all be hoping Kelsey Roth can bounce back from a disappointing .256/8/20 line. Presumed returning junior starters Sami Fagan, Taylor Gadbois, and (switzy favorite) Emily Crane will help shape a largely experienced roster this year, which should provide some continuity and familiarity that could make Mizzou one of the most feared lineups in all of college softball.
Of course, there have been changes as well, Beef, and some of those are likely to be key to any success Mizzou has in 2015. What do you see changing for the Tigers, and how does that affect your outlook on the upcoming season?
I think you certainly touched on a number of the offensive/defensive stalwarts on whom Mizzou should be able to count when the year gets going (and we can certainly get to our hopelessly wrong lineup predictions later in the previews). But I think you've already penciled in Roth at 1st (which I would as well), Corrin at SS (agreed) and Gadbois in CF (agreed again). Crane spent some time at 2B and in RF, and certainly she is going to be starting every game at one of those two locales. But what about someone like Sami Fagan? Ended up behind home plate and maybe that hurt the offensive production we thought we'd see. Is that enough to get Mack behind the plate and move Fagan back to 2nd base, cementing Crane in RF? And what of Angie Randazzo? She killed the ball at points in the season, but seemed a perceived defensive liability at 3B. Does that keep her then at DP and open the door for someone else at 3B? A true frosh perhaps?
Also, what of Kayla Kingsley? Tough to know if she is (or maybe ever will be) healthy, but her coming back would give the Tigers a hell of a weapon in the outfield and on the base paths. And if not her, can you put Fleming out there to get her bat in the lineup? Then you have the bench. This is where I think we will miss people like Stangel and Schkade. They may not have had a starting spot this season (though Schkade certainly played a good bit last year at 2B) but those bats off the bench would be decent. Without them, I guess you start to turn to some of the youngsters….watch the segue here…
So what to think of the incoming class of Tigers? What do you expect to see from them at the plate (we will get to the pitchers in a bit).
Well, Sami Fagan hit .342 (albeit with limited run production) so I think she'll end up making the lineup. But she and Randazzo each had 12 errors. Unfortunately, I don't have a breakdown of Fagan's by position she was playing, but either way, it is a concern. I think you are right that Randazzo ends up primarily at DP (however, interestingly, she is listed as 3B/C on the official roster...). Fagan caught last year in order to boost offensive production from that spot, but I would guess that Coach E would rather have Kirsten Mack step up her game.
I don't know what to expect from Kayla Kingsley. But I'll root like hell for her, and be happy with whatever she can bring to the team.
To get to your question, I think this is a very talented group of players entering the program this year. There are 5 non-pitchers in the mix, and all of them could eventually see significant playing time in their careers...but with the experience and quality of the best 10 or so hitters on the team, I think the opportunity for significant time is going to be limited. The best candidates to see the field regularly are Amanda Sanchez, a cherished California recruit who can play 3rd and brings a solid resume (and power potential) to the team, and Morgan Walters, a Georgia product who managed a good deal of power in her high school career. The other freshmen - Paige Bange, Sydney Sprague, and Sara Harvey, probably won't see much time unless they make a serious leap in the next couple months or we see some injuries and/or disappointing performances from the upperclassmen. Given the significant talent graduating the next two seasons, I wouldn't be surprised at all if Coach Earleywine tried to redshirt a couple of these players to build up for the future.
Our biggest impact freshman is likely to be Paige Lowary, teaming up with Tori Finucane in the circle. What does that do for the Tiger pitching staff, and are we going to see any other changes there this season?
STAY TUNED FOR PARTS TWO AND THREE!!