Wichita State softball coach Kristi Bredbenner thinks hitters come first when building a team. Show pitchers run support and recruiting gets easier.
Bredbenner, in her third season at WSU, is well on her way to constructing a potent offense and the bats are carrying the Shockers to the top of the Missouri Valley Conference standings. WSU (22-17, 9-3 MVC) plays second-place Northern Iowa (21-10, 8-3) in a three-game series that begins with a noon doubleheader on Saturday at Wilkins Stadium.
“Offensively, we’ve been 10 times better than we’ve been the last two years,” Bredbenner said. “Hitting is the thing you coach up first, because it’s a little easier to go out there and find kids with good swings. Now the pitchers we’re recruiting will see that ‘OK, this team is actually moving forward.’”
The Shockers, who last finished in the upper half of the MVC in 2008, lead the MVC with a .307 batting average, 65 doubles and 218 runs, Their 34 home runs rank second behind Northern Iowa’s 36. Five Shockers are hitting better than .300 and the lineup is loaded with youth.
“All of us that are new to the program wanted to come in and change Wichita State softball for the better,” freshman right fielder Paige Luellen said.
Luellen, from Tulsa, is hitting .383 with seven home runs and a team-leading 34 RBI. Sophomore first baseman Cacy Williams, a transfer from Emporia State, leads WSU with a .390 batting average and eight home runs. Freshman shortstop Kelli Spring leads WSU with 12 steals and is hitting .289. Sophomore second baseman Liz Broyles, a transfer from UMKC, is hitting .315 with 19 walks.
Junior catcher Melanie Jaegers, who started last season, is hitting .328. Sophomore left fielder Brittany Fortner, also a returner, hits .317.
Bredbenner recruited Williams to Emporia State, but did not coach her, before she took the WSU job in 2012. Williams, from Platte City, Mo., redshirted in 2012 and earned MIAA Freshman of the Year honors in 2013 before transferring. She moved into the leadoff spot early in the season and gives WSU a blend of power and speed.
“She’s done of much better job of having a good eye at the plate,” Bredbenner said. “She was a sucker for a good change-up, a sucker for a good rise ball. Now she’s swinging at pitches she wants to hit instead of chasing the ones the pitchers want you to.”
The move from NCAA Division II to NCAA Division I hasn’t slowed Williams.
“Obviously, the pitching is a lot better than you see at the Division II level,” she said. “You see different pitches. You’re going to see a lot more spin. So, I’ve made adjustments. I put in tons of extra works and shortened my swing a little bit.”
Luellen moved into the cleanup spot in mid-March. Bredbenner liked her background with powerful Jenks High and expected her to be a good offensive player.
“She was a kid that a lot of people marked off their list, for whatever reason,” Bredbenner said. “Her bat didn’t come alive until later in the recruiting process and we were lucky enough to be late in the recruiting process and did snag her.”
The Shockers grabbed first place at the expense of some of the MVC’s weaker teams. Bredbenner expects the schedule to toughen, starting this weekend against Northern Iowa. MVC coaches picked WSU eighth in the preseason poll. Her team, which has four seniors, is competing for an MVC title for the first time.
Recently, Bredbenner gave the Shockers the “It’s a long season” talk after she heard them getting too giddy over first place.
“She had to tone us down a little bit,” Williams said. “We realize this is a big weekend for us, but every single weekend is a big weekend for us. We just need to continue to improve and keep proving people wrong.”