Friends softball coach Tony Segovia warned his team before the season about what was waiting for it.
“We were going to play a tough schedule, a lot of ranked teams right off the bat,” Segovia said. “I told them, from the beginning, that I thought we would probably come out of it right at .500 or a little below.”
So he wasn’t surprised when the Falcons rolled into Fayette, Mo., on March 21 to take on No. 10 Central Methodist in their final games before KCAC play with a 14-12 record.
“Then they showed me something against Central Methodist,” Segovia said. “They beat them and everything started to fall into place, and right before conference play.”
Friends (27-15, 12-2 KCAC) split with Central Methodist, winning the second game 4-2 and grabbing momentum that has propelled it into first place. The Falcons have back-to-back series at second-place Ottawa (24-15, 11-3) on Friday and home against third-place Kansas Wesleyan (35-9, 10-4) on Tuesday that will likely determine the KCAC regular-season champion.
Segovia, in his 11th season, has won five KCAC regular-season titles and six KCAC Tournament titles with Friends.
“We have it in our hands, we control what happens to us,” Segovia said. “A lot of times it comes down to these games and you’re going for a championship but you need this team to beat this team and so on … we don’t have that this year.
“We beat these teams and it’s ours. That’s where you want to be.”
A lineup adjustment by Segovia and the emergence of junior pitcher and Maize product Brenna Westemeir as the Falcons’ ace have been key.
With junior Khadijah Bland struggling at the plate after being an honorable mention All-American as a sophomore, Segovia decided to move her from third base to the designated player spot so she could focus solely on hitting.
Bland has thrived in that role – she leads the KCAC with a .461 batting average and 14 home runs. She’s second in the league with 46 RBIs.
Bland didn’t even hit her first home run until the 11th game of the season, against Georgia Gwinnett on Feb. 28, and she’s had three multi-home run games since.
“We had that buildup at the beginning of the year where we all were going hard and figuring out what we needed to work on,” Bland said. “We switched out a lot of players to find out what worked, to find out what would stick, and we’ve been going strong since.”
Part of that has been Westemeir finding her footing in KCAC play. She leads Friends with a 14-7 record, 3.31 ERA and 79 strikeouts in 122 2/3 innings.
“She wasn’t as effective to begin with, not as strong as she is now,” Segovia said. “We changed a few things and she’s been rolling.”
“A big thing for us is to stay focused,” Westemeir said. “It can’t just be the nine people on the field, it’s got to be everybody in the dugout focused on the same thing. That’s made a huge difference when we’re all locked in.”
Now there’s a title to play for.
“These are our biggest games of the year,” Bland said. “They won’t be easy, but we can do it.”