On Saturday, Wichita State won its first NCAA softball game. Later that day, the Shockers, with five seniors, gathered for a final meeting, hugs and tears after losing an elimination game to Mississippi in Norman, Okla.
On Monday and Tuesday, the process of putting those accomplishments behind them as the foundation for next season began with team meetings at Wilkins Stadium. Landmark seniors Cacy Williams, Liz Broyles and Brittany Fortner won’t return and coach Kristi Bredbenner’s top priority is adding to the pitching staff.
“We have to work hard and fill in some of that offensive power that we lost,” Bredbenner said. “We’ve got to focus in on what kind of team we’re going to have. We definitely need some help in the circle.”
For three seasons, the Shockers thumped Missouri Valley Conference pitching on its way to the program’s first two regular-season titles and this season’s tournament title. They hit .314 with 56 home runs in 2014, both tops in the conference, on their way to the title. In 2015, they finished fourth after hitting an MVC-best .305 with 44 home runs. This season’s team hit .305 and tied for the MVC lead with 58 home runs.
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Williams, a two-time MVC Player of the Year at first base, departs with a WSU-record 39 home runs and 135 RBIs in three seasons. Fortner, a three-time All-MVC pick in the outfield, hit .340 for her career with an MVC-record 58 doubles. Broyles, All-MVC at third base as a senior, hit .322 with 15 home runs in three seasons.
“Our senior leadership, they led us here,” pitcher Katie Malone said after the NCAA regional elimination game. “We have a lot to replace next year, but I think with hard work we can do it.”
While the loss of those three seniors leaves holes in the lineup, Bredbenner can start over with several proven returners.
39 Career home runs by Cacy Williams, a Shockers record
135Career RBI by Williams, also a record
.673 Career slugging percentage for Williams, a WSU record
Macklin Hitz, a junior, earned All-MVC honors as the designated player and may replace Williams at first. She hit .350 with 10 home runs. Right fielder Paige Luellen, a second-team All-MVC pick, led WSU with a .478 on-base percentage and hit 11 homers, second behind Williams’ 14.
Catcher Mackenzie Wright, also a second-team pick, hit .293 and earned a spot on the MVC’s All-Defensive Team. She may return to third base, where she played in 2015 when she hit .359 with three home runs. Bredbenner wants to see improvement from several freshmen, including Cassidy Kelsheimer at catcher after a season in which she started 33 games.
Freshman shortstop Laurie Anne Derrico hit .297, .344 in MVC games, with eight home runs and is a candidate to move to the top half of the batting order. The middle of WSU’s defense is solid with Derrico, second baseman Kelli Spring and center fielder Ashley Johnson returning.
“It was kind of nice to ease (Derrico) in as a freshman,” Bredbenner said. “She struggled early, but then really, really did a nice job in the second half. She ended up being a pretty clutch performer for us the last couple weeks.”
WSU also returns experience at pitcher and both Jenni Brooks and Malone can draw on solid NCAA outings as they prepare for 2017 as seniors.
Brooks held Oklahoma to five hits and two runs over 5 1/3 innings in relief in a 7-2 loss to the Sooners. Malone, after a tough start against OU, bounced back to beat Tulsa 2-1 with a four-hitter to give WSU its first NCAA win in three appearances. Brooks will have surgery this spring to correct compartment syndrome in her right forearm and is expected to return during fall practice.
Bredbenner wants to add an experienced arm to the group that also includes sophomore Kelsey Sterneker, who started eight games. Bredbenner is targeting a transfer who can contribute without a lengthy adjustment period.
“Somebody that maybe went to a bigger Division I school, a BCS school, and wasn’t participating in the role they particularly thought they should be … maybe were kids we recruited in the past that ended up picking up BCS schools over us and are unhappy,” she said.
Bredbenner also sees Sterneker, from Maize South, as a key piece if she can improve on her 5.29 ERA in 45 innings.
“She’s got all the potential in the world,” Bredbenner said. “She’s a big kid; she’s got good spin. She wants to be good, but I’m not sure she knows how and that’s what’s holding her back a little bit.”
Shockers coaches will recruit this weekend at high school playoffs to start the summer and are also in the market for a transfer who can hit for power.
WSU signed five recruits in the fall, including outfielder Morgan Palmer, who hit .437 with 22 steals as a sophomore at Seminole (Okla.) State College. Madison Perrigan, from Mustang (Okla.) High, could figure in at catcher. Lefty pitcher Bailey Klitzke, utility player Kiersten Otte and first baseman/outfielder Brigitta Doherty will also join the team.