Wichita State’s softball team won the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title last weekend, then became retroactively angry.
Being picked in the preseason to finish eighth in the Valley was immediately grating, but it especially hit home after the Shockers defied those expectations and a less-than-glowing history that included zero regular-season conference championships.
WSU, however, thrives on disproving critics. The Shockers came from behind in the conference, winning the Valley with a sweep of Illinois State in the final series of the regular season. The MVC Tournament began Thursday in Normal, Ill. Wichita State received a double bye into the semifinals, and will play Bradley at 12:05 p.m. Friday. Bradley beat Missouri State 8-5 on Thursday.
“The one thing that I’ve noticed about this team is we have a little bit of cockiness to us,” WSU coach Kristi Bredbenner said. “It’s a good cockiness. A lot of confidence and going out there and really carrying themselves well, and an expectation that we can get it done. That’s hard to teach.”
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The preseason prognostication was hardly far-fetched, since WSU finished eighth in the conference last season and ninth the year before that, Bredbenner’s first season. The Shockers hadn’t finished with a winning league record since 2007.
The coaches forecasting the standings may not have known how much the Shockers improved since last season, but Bredbenner and her players had a feeling. WSU added multiple experienced newcomers — transfers such as Cacy Williams and Liz Broyles — along with talented freshmen Paige Luellen and pitcher Kaitlyn Malone.
The result was a turnaround that wasn’t exactly immediate, as WSU endured early-season inconsistencies, but became evident as the Shockers rolled through the conference, never losing a Valley series until late April.
Losing two of three to Southern Illinois necessitated playing catch-up to Illinois State on the final weekend but also strengthened the Shockers’ resolve.
“As the coach that recruited all these kids, you want to be the one who’s like, ‘Heck yeah we knew they were good,’ ” Bredbenner said. “I think we went out, the last two years, and we tried to find the best athletes; kids that worked hard, that had the mentality that they’re not too good to play here instead of at a (major-conference) school. We saw the potential in them, and we’ve been very lucky that those kids have already reached the potential we thought they had, and have even more than than that.”
While developing young pitchers Malone and freshman Jenni Brooks, WSU has forged its foundation through offense. The Shockers are batting .316 with five regulars at .300 or better. Williams, the conference player of the year, batting .422 with 16 home runs from the leadoff spot.
Bredbenner spent much of the early part of the season tinkering with the lineup but eventually settled on a starting nine that is balanced and features power throughout, with Brittany Fortner and Luellen (eight homers apiece) occupying spots in the middle while Paige Mason and her seven home runs fortifies the bottom half.
“I think hitting is definitely contagious,” Williams said. “One person gets a hit, then another person gets a hit. We have a lot of fun, and we also work very hard. We hit during practice, but we also hit before practice and after practice. We put in the extra work, which I think helps a lot.”
Two wins at the Valley tournament stand between the Shockers and and an automatic NCAA Tournament berth.
That’s enough to rattle the psyche of an inexperienced team, but not one with WSU’s cocky nature.
“This past weekend, I didn’t see any nerves in the game (with Illinois State),” Bredbenner said. “I think I was more nervous than the girls were. That’s an awesome feeling, as a coach, to see that those girls are going out there loose, energized and ready to play.”