WICHITA FALLS, TX (KAUZ) - Midwestern State softball opens the 2018 season a week from Friday at the Lubbock Softball Classic.
This year's team is half made-up of newcomers, so there will be a noticeable change from a year ago.
"Right now, it's high-energy," is how coach Mark Ryal described the vibe at practice.
Ryal is in his second year as head coach at MSU. After serving in an interim capacity last season, he's the full-time coach now. His players say after a full year, they've really gotten used to him.
"This year I feel like it's more exciting and upbeat," said sophomore outfielder Lauren Lindgren. "Last year we were kinda down, and we didn't really have a drive to play. And this year I feel like, with all the recruits we have coming in, we have a lot more talent and we're more excited to be out on the field and win."
Coach Ryal says, with so many new faces, they're looking to put everyone in the best position to succeed.
"They're from anywhere, from Division I schools to JuCos, or freshmen coming in," Ryal said of his new players. "It's a mixture of three levels coming together, but right now we're just concerned about getting them to know each other a lot better in day-to-day practices, and getting to know where each and every one of them needs to be in certain situations."
One big key to the Mustangs' high hopes for this year is a completely revamped pitching staff.
They have four newcomers who they expect to see time in the circle: UT-Arlington transfer Gracie Bogle, UCO transfer Abbie Lancaster, El Paso CC transfer Riley Adams, who signed out of high school to Angelo State, and Tyler JC transfer Tucker Caraway, who started at South Alabama.
"Gracie and Abbie, they both throw mid-60s, have a lot of movement," said senior catcher Amanda Thomas, who will have to learn an all-new staff this year. "And then we've got Tucker who is very good at hitting her spots, movement, good changeup. We have a lot of pitchers who throw riseballs. Having four or five pitchers, versus two or three last year, is going to be a very big attribute for us this year."
"Last year we only had 1-2 pitchers the whole season, and this year now we have, I think, five," Lindgren said. "Each one is different. They have different movement, riseball, dropball. In this conference, the difference is we'll be able to switch it up and make us better."
The depth should help in early-season tournaments and conference series...
"I think especially with like, 3-game series, it's a big deal," Thomas said. "Just so they're not seeing the same pitcher over and over again. And then if anybody gets in a bind, it's very easy to switch people out. Most of our pitchers play different positions, and hit, so that makes it easier, too, to switch between pitchers."
Coach Ryal said he wants to build a staff, not just rely on one or two pitchers. That starts in the tournaments.
"You get to know the pitch count, kinda where they get tired," he said. "Which one's a better starter, or a reliever, or which one can relieve. But for me, with the four pitchers, we're going to use them just like a baseball staff."
Offensively, the Mustangs will be led by the sophomore Lindgren. Last year, as a true freshman, she led the team in batting average, homers, doubles, stolen bases and runs batted in, all from the leadoff spot. Now it's a matter of adjusting as the league tries to catch up.
"Oh, yeah, she'll have a target on her back," coach Ryal said. "You know, everybody's going to have charts on her. The sophomore year is always the toughest year, because everyone knows you."
"This year I just have to know my weaknesses," Lindgren said. "And work on my weaknesses every day, and get better on that, because now the teams know my weaknesses."
They hope newcomers like Tulsa transfer Kelsey Eropkin and junior college slugger Ashley Fletcher, who hit 35 home runs in two seasons at Connors State, can support her in the lineup.
"I think we have a couple more hitters that will come in and be very beneficial to the team," Thomas said.
They hope it's a formula for a return to prominence for the Mustangs.
They'll play five games next weekend in Lubbock, opening and closing the week against Colorado School of Mines. Four of the five games will be at LCU's Plains Capital Park.