Softball season is quickly approaching on the Hill and WKU will trot out almost an entire new team in its opening doubleheader tomorrow.
“We are excited for the 2017 season,” head coach Amy Tudor said. “We have a lot of new faces on the team, including members of my staff. As far as the players on the team, we have 10 new players – eight freshmen and two junior transfers.”
With just six returning players from last year’s team, Tudor is excited for the opportunity to work with a group of young talent.
“I think you are going to see a young team that may not be very experienced, but we are hungry,” Tudor said. “I would say that everything that has been asked of this team, they’ve done. The fall was smooth sailing and that was great to see with this many newcomers. And that credit goes to a lot of our upperclassmen leadership; while there are only six of them, they’ve done a great job of doing that. This group is a fun group to coach. They’re good kids and I am just excited to see them perform on the field and off the field academically.”
Coming off a 17-30 campaign in 2016, Tudor has two returning seniors on the 2017 team including her first four-year player, pitcher Kat Downing. Entering her fourth season as head coach, Tudor has had Downing by her side every step of the way at WKU.
“This is very unique for me, just because you move schools and you have coaching turnover, so Kat’s my first [four-year player],” Tudor said. “So I think I’ll be really sad, not only from a player, obviously you replace players physically, but not personally. So I think it’s going to be hard. I think senior day will be hard for me.”
Downing is coming off a season in which she posted a 6-4 record in 19 appearances while recording a 2.76 earned-run average.
“I think Kat is a special person, obviously because she’s played for me for four years but also because of who she is as a person,” Tudor said of Downing. “What she brings to the table off the field, holding the team accountable and on the field … We have a good relationship. I would like nothing more than to send her out in style this season.”
Tudor also noted Downing’s two knee surgeries which have forced her to “adapt” to a bit of a new role.
“It’s a little different than last year,” Downing said of her role change. “Last year I kind of did it all: pitched, hit and played first base. I think the most important role I can play is bringing my experience. That’s invaluable, and we’ve got some freshmen that are going to have to grow up really quick. Being that constant, consistent leader is really important as well as bringing my game in the circle.”
Downing also spoke of assistant coach and former WKU baseball player, Matt Wilhite.
“Oh, he’s awesome,” Downing said. “I told him today, I think that if there were more coaches like him … he’s what makes me believe there’s still good in the world.”
Wilhite brings a lot of knowledge to the team, on top of his great character, according to Downing.
“He’s an awesome person, first and foremost, and he brings so much to the table,”Downing said. “I mean he played as close as you can get to the pros, so bringing his knowledge and his wisdom, and on top of that being a great person, we are so lucky to have him.”
This year, the Hilltoppers will play three teams ranked in the USA Today/NFCA Division I Softball Coaches Preseason Poll with matches against No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 20 Kentucky and No. 23 Florida Atlantic. There will be plenty of tests for a young team that has 10 new faces.
The Hilltoppers have just two returning seniors, but they’ll play two of the most important positions, as Downing will pitch and Taylor Proctor will play catcher. WKU will also be looking for significant contributions from their best returning hitter, Jordan Mauch, a utility player who had a .324 batting average last season.
The Hilltoppers will start off their season with the Bulldog Kickoff in Starkville, Mississippi on Friday. Their first game will be against Stephen F. Austin on Friday, followed by a matchup with Georgia State later in the day. Following the Bulldog Classic, WKU will host two tournaments at home.
Reporter Jeremy Chisenhall can be reached at 859-760-0198 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @JSChisenhall.