Maybe it was because Bethany softball coach Janice Esses was such an insider in KCAC circles that, ultimately, she turned to a group of outsiders.
While she wouldn’t stop recruiting the state of Kansas, at some point Esses decided if she wanted to win conference titles, she would have to find the majority of her team outside the borders of the Sunflower State. A decade-plus of playing and coaching in Kansas had taught her such.
The results have been impossible to argue with.
“It’s tough to get those really good Kansas kids because there’s so much competition, not only from the other NAIA schools but from the jucos and the handful of Division II and Division I schools,” Esses said. “We just tried to recruit kids who have interest in our type of school, who maybe don’t have the same opportunities for four-year schools in their state as we do here.”
With a team comprised almost entirely of out-of-staters — 4 of 26 players on the roster are Kansas natives — the Swedes (40-7) have won the last two KCAC regular-season titles headed into today’s 2 p.m. first-round matchup against the winner of this morning’s Sterling-Saint Mary game at the KCAC Tournament in Hutchinson. Ottawa is the second seed and Friends is the third seed.
Esses, a two-time All-KCAC catcher at Bethany in 2000 and 2001, has won three titles in 11 seasons. Bethany broke into the NAIA national rankings at No. 24 last week, the first Top 25 appearance in school history.
“We’ve never been to the national tournament and we’ve come up short a couple of times at the league tournament, so I think we’re looking at this like a great opportunity to get over that hump,” Esses said.
Junior pitcher Jenny Garcia has been the ace for the Swedes with a 16-6 record, 2.16 ERA and KCAC-leading 211 strikeouts.
“She’s a strikeout threat every time you put her out there,” Esses said. “She’s got great velocity, but her movement is what makes her so tough to hit.”
Garcia, from Harlingen, Texas, transferred to Bethany from Brown Mackie, where she was an All-Region VI selection last season.
“When I got to college I went from throwing with a four-seam to a two-seam, which can make the ball do crazy things with this Kansas weather,” Garcia said. “It gives the ball a natural screw or rise to it.”
Bethany’s No. 2 pitcher has been sophomore Hollind Englert, who is 16-2 with 62 strikeouts and second in the KCAC with a 2.06 ERA.
“I love having Jenny pitch before me,” said Englert, from Castle Rock, Colo. “I don’t have as much speed, but I have a changeup and that switch can really keep teams off-balance.”
At the plate, the biggest surprise for Bethany has been the emergence of freshman second baseman Jasmine Zaker, a Mesa, Ariz., native who teammates affectionately call “Scooby.”
Zaker is third in the KCAC with a .406 batting average and sixth in runs (36) and hits (54).
“When I was born, my dad said, ‘I love you Scooby Doo,’ and that just stuck from there on out,” Zaker said, laughing. “The reason we’ve played well is because we have great chemistry. We hang out a lot off the field … we do team dinners, we go out together, we’re just always with each other.”
Last year’s third-place tournament finish still weight heavy on the minds of the Swedes, who have used it for motivation ever since.
“Losing really pushed us to work a lot harder in the offseason,” Englert said. “And practices were a lot tougher this year … you could tell we wanted to prove we could make it, that we can really take that next step.”