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Lincoln opens softball season today

LIncoln’s Clair Lorenz pitches against Nebraska Omaha in 2011.

LIncoln’s Clair Lorenz pitches against Nebraska Omaha in 2011. Photo by News Tribune.

As the softball season gets started today for the Lincoln Blue Tigers, one thing is clear — this is not last season.

The first example comes in terms of the team’s approach.

“Everybody asks us, ‘How do you think the season is going to go?’ We’re not saying anything this year,” Lincoln coach Nicole Stacey said. “We’re going to be the underdogs and just show people instead of talking about it. Last year, we were all excited and talked a great game. But we couldn’t play the game. We’re going to play the game this year and do the talking on the field.”

The next big difference comes in terms of the team’s makeup.

“I’m anticipating good things this year, and the difference is that we’ve really matured,” Stacey said. “Last year I was dealing with things that had nothing to do with softball.”

But with a veteran-laden squad — the Blue Tigers have five seniors and seven juniors — that shouldn’t be an issue. And with a total roster of 17, the depth issues of last year should also be a thing of the past.

“Having enough players this year to cover all the positions is a huge difference,” Stacey said. “And I have four healthy pitchers right now, so that’s looking good. We’ll see what happens and see how long they last.”

That depth in the circle is good news.

“Before I’ve had to let a pitcher stand out there and suffer because we haven’t had anybody who could come in,” Stacey said. “Now we have someone who can. If I have to use all four in seven innings, I’m going to use all four. That is going to be a big difference.”

And those four have different strengths, although seniors Clair Lorenz and Starr McLeod are what could be considered the team’s power pitchers. They also share another characteristic.

“Clair came back when she didn’t have to,” Stacey said. “She redshirted so she could finish out and have a good senior year. The same thing with Starr. She didn’t have to come back, she was accepted to nursing school out in Kansas, but she wanted to come back and finish out her senior year.”

The off-speed pitchers for the Blue Tigers, meanwhile, are senior Tina Hein and junior Jessica Thompson.

The group knows it’s going to take a team effort for Lincoln to be successful.

“In talking to the kids, I let them know, ‘Just because I pull you, it’s not the end of the line. If you’re not doing the job, hopefully a teammate can step in and do the job,’” Stacey said.

That’s a lesson the entire squad would be wise to learn.

“Last year, somebody would come out and they’d sit and pout about their playing time,” Stacey said. “But it’s not about your playing time, it’s about the team. Every three practices or so I revisit that conversation, just to make sure it’s not taken as me against them, it’s me trying to do what’s best for the team.”

With the rest of the lineup, most of the positions have already been settled. The battles already won include junior Erin Sommerer at first base, junior Lauren McMinn at second and sophomore Samantha Kircher at shortstop. Senior Joey Bunch has emerged as the early choice at third base.

The Blue Tigers have two good options at catcher, both juniors.

“Shantae Duren is probably my starter, if I had to pick right now, but both Kelsey Hight and Shantae are in the mix,” Stacey said. “They’re both big hitters for me.”

The locks in the outfield are senior Brianna Akers in right and Haley Bartow in center. Amanda Coffelt appears to be the starter in left field to open the season.

“We have a good mix of both offense and defense in the lineup,” Stacey said. “When I choose my positions, it goes batting first. I really look at who’s hitting well. I’ll sacrifice a little defense for a strong bat, and the majority of the starters out there have a pretty strong bat. Out of the nine starters, six to seven are pretty consistent.”

Stacey added three of the four pitchers will hit for themselves, meaning the designated player could be used for any slumping position players.

“If we have a weaker hitter out there for their fielding, we might hit for them,” she said. “The DP is going to be used quite a bit this year, especially since we have two catchers who are so strong.”

The Blue Tigers begin a tough schedule today at the Southeastern Oklahoma State Tournament, as they’ll play in the event through Sunday. It’s one of three tournaments on the slate, as the Blue Tigers will also play in events at West Florida and Missouri Western.

“The schedule is not easy, by any means,” Stacey said. “Our first tournament, we’re playing tough teams, then we’re scheduled for the Missouri Western tournament that has very tough regional teams.

“The Florida trip is more for the experience, just being a college kid. These kids don’t get a lot of experiences here, so I wanted them to have that opportunity. We’re usually traveling somewhere in Kansas or Missouri for spring break, so the girls raised their own money for the trip and that’s their reward. I don’t see us doing this all the time, but this year we can.”

It might be one of the few enjoyable parts of a schedule featuring rugged competition.

“I’m not one of those coaches who are going to schedule weak competition,” Stacey said. “I would love to, but that’s not going to make us better. ... I’m excited to see what the girls are going to give me and what the schedule holds for us.”

After Sunday’s tournament games, the Blue Tigers are off for 15 days, not playing again until Feb. 26 at Missouri Baptist. Then they’re off until March 6 at Lindenwood-Belleville, before finally opening the home part of their schedule March 7 against Truman State.

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