Wichita State softball coach Mike Perniciaro started fall practice with an admission and a challenge.
"We haven't played well the past two years," he said. "We've underachieved in my estimation. That was the challenge to this team — we want to make a run at the (Missouri Valley Conference) championship."
The Shockers, 22-31 last season, play their first scrimmages of the fall at 1 p.m. Saturday with a doubleheader against Eastern Oklahoma State College at Wilkins Stadium.
Perniciaro hopes it is the first step to reversing a two-season slump. WSU is 43-63 in that time, 20-29 in MVC play. In both seasons, it ranked near the bottom of the MVC pitching stats. The 2009 team hit .262 and ranked third in the MVC in runs before slipping to a .234 average last spring.
Perniciaro thinks the solution to many issues exist in a lineup that is deeper and more experienced. He returns starters at catcher and every infield position except second base. In the outfield, he expects Kiersten Dixon to move from right to center. Kersti Rowan returns to hit leadoff and play left. Syracuse transfer Meghan Boston, from Newton, could take Dixon's spot in right.
"Our talent pool on this team is getting to where it needs to be," Perniciaro said. "We'll be able to throw nine people in that lineup that can hit."
Catcher Heather Gerrittse hit .298 with six home runs last season. First baseman Jamie Hull hit .293 with six home runs. They were second-team All-MVC selections.
"This is so much better than last fall," Gerrittse said. "We have more chemistry on the field. We all know where we're supposed to be at any point of the game."
WSU's pitching staff will need its defense to play well. No. 1 pitcher Kasha Kolb left WSU and is not playing softball, Perniciaro said. Freshman lefty Sloan Anderson joins sophomore Katie Armagost and senior Brianna Smet in the circle. Without a No. 1, new pitching coach Margo Pruis will experiment this fall by using two or three pitchers in a game.
"Each of our pitchers is different in what they throw," Pruis said. "It's going to be beneficial to switch them up a little bit."
Perniciaro wants to push his team, so he scheduled a game at Big 12 runner-up Oklahoma on Sept. 25. WSU will play a doubleheader against Butler Community College on Oct. 2 and play Newman and Cowley College on Oct. 9, all at Wilkins Stadium.
Extra credit _ Shocker volleyball coach Chris Lamb raised his team's non-conference grade from a B-minus to a B after Tuesday's sweep of SMU at Koch Arena.
The Shockers went 7-2 and start MVC play on a four-match win streak. Losses to Miami (Fla.) and Portland sting, but Lamb is pleased with how a young team navigated the first three weeks.
"I would certainly like to have a couple of those back," he said. "But statistically, we beat both those teams, so from that standpoint I feel pretty good about how we played."
The Shockers didn't play a ranked team, although Lamb likes the strength of schedule. Oklahoma, swept by WSU in Norman, is 8-3 entering Big 12 play. He believes wins over Houston (3-6), BYU (3-7) and SMU (7-3) will look solid by season's end. Miami, which defeated WSU 3-2 in Norman, is 10-1.
WSU plays at Bradley on Friday and at No. 17 Northern Iowa on Saturday.
Running regionally _ The WSU women's cross country team is ranked No. 7 in the Midwest Region by the U.S. Track and Field Cross Country Coaches Association.
MVC rivals Illinois State (No. 12) and Missouri State (No. 14) are also ranked. The Shockers run in the Iowa Invitational on Saturday in Iowa City.