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AWC feautres new chemistry, more power as it seeks return to playoffs
The Arizona Western softball team lost its opener Friday 7-4 to No. 1 Salt Lake, but rebounded in a 6-4 win against El Paso at a tournament in Nevada.
The Matadors committed four errors in the opener. Hayley Miller took the loss, allowing five hits and two earned runs in six innings.
Savanna Baggett had a home run and Alex Roman had two hits for the Matadors, who were playing later Friday in the tournament.
Jessica Leitner pitched two innings of relief for the win in the second game. AWC led 4-0 until Jackie Pierson gave up four runs, three earned, in the sixth. Courtnie Ploesch and Breanna Delgadillo had two hits each.
Nikki Bethurum isn't quite sure what to expect of her Arizona Western softball team.
Last year, the Matadors missed the playoffs for the first time in four seasons. In their quest to get back, the fourth-year coach is optimistic heading into the team's opening tournament this weekend.
“The phrase we've been using is, cautiously optimistic,” Bethurum said. “We were optimistic last year. This year I think if we keep going the way we are, I think we'll be able to do good things. ... If we can keep our group a team, that's going to make the biggest difference.”
Bethurum said the team's chemistry is the biggest improvement from last year's squad. They went 29-34, including 3-11 to end the year.
“It's hard to put into words,” Bethurum said. “You have to see it. You have to see them at practice. You have to see them working in the bullpen. It's a whole different attitude, a whole new approach to the game.”
The team has plenty of sophomores back from last year, but Bethurum said no one's starting job was safe. Courtnie Ploesch is the closest thing to a sure bet after making the all-conference team last year and powering the AWC offense.
“We all have a really good connection, sophomores and freshmen,” Ploesch said. “We hang out after practice, before practice, eat lunch and dinner together.”
The new faces are all on the pitching staff, with four freshmen battling for time, including Cibola grad Jackie Pierson — who is one of six Yuma players on the roster this year.
Bethurum said the team has been working on its power, and liked what she saw from the big bats in the offseason.
“We've been hitting the ball a lot better,” Bethurum said. “They worked very, very hard over the fall to improve their hitting. Definitely that's one that's different from last year at this time — we're knocking a lot of balls over the fence and we weren't quite there last year.”
Myliah Ramirez and Alex Roman — Cibola grads like Pierson — saw a lot of playing time last year and are back for their sophomore campaigns. Savanna Baggett is likely to see time behind the plate, but Roman (third base) and Baggett are likely to be pushed by freshman April Marquez, who plays both positions.
Even though she's new to the team, Marquez said she's noticed a different type of chemistry.
“If a player isn't doing well we pull them off to the side and try to help them instead of on the field, yelling at them, which really makes a difference,” Marquez said. “Anger is the enemy of instruction.
“If you can't get along with your teammate off the field, I doubt you can on the field,” she said. “We're not saying we have to be best friends, but on the field you have to look like a team and act like a team. Respect your teammates and what they do.”
With so much up in the air, Bethurum said she was glad the team was starting its season with a pair of tournaments before heading into conference play, getting more than a dozen games played before the conference opener.
“This year we'll be able to see who emerges as our starter, who emerges as the people who shuts the opposing teams down,” Bethurum said. “Same goes with most other positions. Pretty much all positions are up for grabs.”
“I think we just needed to improve overall in a couple areas,” she said. “We need a little stronger hitting, we need a little strong pitching and we need a little stronger defense. I think if we get all cylinders firing, get back into the swing of things, I think we have all the right spots.”