SOFTBALL PREVIEW: Lady Toppers spurred by youth

T.D. Clark

As cold weather rained down on the Hill the past few weeks, and sent many reaching for their wool hats and thermal gloves, Leslie Phelan just sat and smiled.

Phelan wasn’t feeling any of old man winter’s sting. She was actually having an easy job forgetting snowy and blustery days.

Because for Phelan the glow of a bright green, newly cut outfield is as close as chocolate candies. And the sound of balls hitting gloves and aluminum bats is closer than the smell of roses.

On Valentine’s Day Western softball begins its fourth season with a myriad of expectations and probably its toughest schedule ever.

“Our goal is always to get better every year, and they are doing just that,” Phelan said.

The road to Oklahoma City, site of this year’s national championship, begins at the University of Alabama Tournament as the Lady Toppers take on the Salukis of Southern Illinois.

Western will also host three tournaments this season beginning with the third annual Hilltopper Spring Classic (March 14-16), Western’s Big Red Blast (March 8-9), and the Sun Belt Conference tournament (May 8-10).

“There would be nothing better than to win a conference championship on our home field,” Phelan said.

The Lady Toppers will also play in the Frost Classic Tournament in Chattanooga (Feb. 28-March 2), the Georgia Tech Buzz Classic (March 21-23), and March 28-29 at a tournament hosted by the University of Tennessee.

The road to the conference championship won’t be as long. Western’s home schedule begins on Feb. 25 opposite Tennessee Tech .

Two years ago the Lady Toppers ended a tough season with a 23-37 record. Last year Phelan’s team added 15 wins and closed the season with a resounding 37-22 record.

“If we’re playing our best towards the end of the season we want to compete for the Sun Belt Conference championship this year,” Phelan said.

Western has been picked to finish third in the Sun Belt Conference Preseason Coaches Poll this year behind reigning Sun Belt champs Louisiana-Lafayette and Florida International.

National power Louisiana-Lafayette received 25 points and all five first-place votes. The Lady Cajuns finished last year ranked nineteenth in the country in the final USA Today/NFCA poll with a 50-13 record. Lafayette returns 11 starters from last year’s team including second team All-American Becky McMurtry. Western plays The Lady Cajuns at home on May 3-4.

Florida International, who Western tied with matching 8-8 Sun Belt Conference records last year, received 17 votes. The Golden Panthers return second team All-Sun Belt performers Jennifer Owens and Amanda Nealer. The Lady Toppers face off against Florida International on April 26-27 in Miami.

Western received fifteen points in the coaches poll and is returning 4 key starters from last year.

Outfielder Jessie Richardson is a fourth-year-senior who led last year’s team in home runs, RBIs, and stolen bases. The recreation major from Clinton, Mich. has twice been named to the all-conference team and will be looked to for senior leadership.

“I need to be a leader both mentally and physically,” Richardson said.

“Jessie’s been around us and been a four-year player and she knows the system,” Phelan said. “She’s a competitor, and a very feisty player and I expect her to lead by example.”

Phelan also has a returning ace in the circle to help out.

Junior Allison Silver was named Sun Belt Conference player of the week three times last year. With a minuscule 1.57 ERA and 6 shutouts last year, Silver is going to be a pitcher to reckon with this year. The Citrus Heights, California native is looking to lead Western in wins for the third consecutive year.

Junior Riley Garcia is a clutch hitting outfielder and catcher from Oak Creek, Wisconsin who is looking to improve on her team best .358 batting average last year. As a sophomore Garcia lead the Hilltoppers in 6 offensive categories.

Another pick to perform well for this year is Kristalyn Smith. Smith is a senior outfielder and pitcher from Portage, Mich. Named to the 2002 Verizon academic All-American first team, Smith was a first team all-conference and owns a career 16-4 record.

Youth will also be served as Phelan brings in seven new faces to the Hill this year, including six incoming freshmen — a couple with Kentucky flavor.

Catcher Jennifer Balance is from Warren East High School and catcher Samantha Young is from Louisville.

Phelan has also brought in a talented junior college transfer, Samantha Hansen. Hansen comes to the hill compliments of Palomar JC, the school that also gave the Lady Toppers then-player and now assistant coach Shanon Searle. Last year Hansen had a stellar season batting .429 with 36 RBIs.

Richardson talked about how advanced many of the youngsters were.

“They’re so mature,” Richardson said. “They want to win. They want to get better. They want to learn.”

If the Lady Toppers level of improvement last year, and the talent and heart on this team is any indication of things to come, there could be another conference trophy coming to Western Kentucky.

“I think we’re gonna do a great job this year,” Richardson said. “In my four years this is the best team we’ve had on paper. I hope everything comes together and I think it will.”

Reach T. D. Clark at [email protected]