SOFTBALL: Fourth-year team taking all comers

T.D. Clark

In each of its first three seasons, the Western softball team has been learning to walk.

As it begins year four, its schedule suggests that head coach Leslie Phelan is looking to start running.

Starting on Valentine’s Day, the Lady Toppers begin their fourth season against the 10th-ranked team in the country, Southern Illinois, at fifth-ranked Alabama’s season-opening tournament.

“If fans would just come out, I think most would be amazed at the speed and excitement of softball,” assistant coach and former player Shanon Searle said.

Western’s schedule contains seven games against nationally ranked teams, including those at Alabama’s tournament.

Other big games include Troy State, Maryland, Eastern Kentucky and two games at home against Sun Belt Conference foe Louisiana-Lafayette.

With the rapid growth of Western athletics as a whole, softball is definitely not being left behind.

“It all begins with a commitment from the top,” Phelan said. “Most schools don’t have a president that is as committed to successful athletics as ours is.”

Phelan’s group of fourth-year seniors, who have been with the program since its conception, will lead a talented group of freshmen into this year’s Sun Belt season. With six fresh faces and a junior college transfer, senior leadership will be a must this year.

“We are very young up the middle this year with two freshmen starting at second and short (Bailey Rolfs and Natasha Sevco),” Phelan said.

The Lady Toppers will be returning four key players from last year’s 37-22 team. Riley Garcia (.358 avg.), Kristalyn Smith (27 RBI) and Jessie Richardson (28 RBI) look to key the offensive attack.

Western’s top returning pitcher, Allison Silver (1.57 ERA, 131 strikeouts), will also be looked to for leadership if the Lady Toppers hope to compete for a Sun Belt title.

“We have all the talent in the world. We just need to see it gel and see the girls work together,” Searle said.

But when practice officially opens Monday, two key ingredients will be missing. Sophomore third baseman Dana Rey is out with a broken arm and has three weeks left in a cast before rehab begins. Junior outfielder Riley Garcia, who provided a number of clutch moments a year ago, is out because of knee surgery but should be ready to go for the season opener.

“I am very excited about this season,” Phelan said. “The loss of key seniors will be missed, but the pitching staff is the deepest and most talented we’ve ever had.”

The hopeful coach said her team will try to build on last year, looking to eclipse the 40-win plateau. The final prognosis: Things are looking up.

Reach T. D. Clark at [email protected]