Shortstop Katie Roux is one of the returning players for the Cowgirls in their second season under head coach Mike Smith. (American Press Archives)
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 22, 2013 12:48 PM
Now, for the encore.
Last year McNeese State began the Mike Smith era in softball with a bang, knocking off the defending national champs on the first day of the season.
When the Cowgirls beat Arizona State, it signaled a change in the program’s direction.
But, there were more than a few growing pains in Smith’s first season in Lake Charles. While there were more than a few big wins, there were also some costly losses.
Far too often, the Cowgirls played to the level of their competition and it left them with a 34-21 record and out of the national tournament. They were just 12-8 in Southland play.
“That is something we have talked about,” Smith said. “We have to play our game no matter who the opponent. We have to play McNeese State softball.”
That means aggressive play with a solid use of fundamentals.
“We know what kind of a team we are and what kind of a game we have to play to be successful,” Smith said. “Last year we had to learn that. We struggled at times to find out just what kind of a team we were.
“I think we know that now.”
With a full fall behind them, the Cowgirls believe they are in a position to make not only a run at the Southland Conference championship but also the playoff spot that goes with winning the SLC tournament.
“Being in a one-bid league, we have to make sure we are playing our best softball at the end of the year,” Smith said.
That’s one reason why he has made the Cowgirl program raise its profile. Once again, McNeese will open the season in the West playing the likes of teams like UCLA.
Last year it was the win over then-No. 1 Arizona State that gave the program its biggest boost.
“Playing good teams helps in a lot of ways,” Smith said. “It gets us ready for our conference games and it gets us the type of exposure that helps us recruit.”
To that end, the Cowgirls have a bumper crop of new girls joining the program this spring. But, it is the veterans who were with Smith last year that are setting the tone.
After learning the new Cowgirl way to play they are passing it along to the younger players, starting what is a new tradition and way of working.
“The older girls buying into what we are trying to do and seeing how well it can work is really the difference this year,” Smith said. “Last year, we needed to have success to prove to them we were on the right track. This year they have already seen what their hard work can do and they are ready to take that next step.”
That next step will start with pitching. McNeese will look to replace ace Tiffany Denham, who a year ago posted a 13-12 record with a 1.69 ERA.
“She will be tough to replace, but we feel we have some people who can do it,” Smith said.
Sophomore Lilly Bianca came on strong at the end of her rookie year, finishing with a 4-1 record and a team-best 1.62 ERA. More will be expected of her after she allowed just 45 hits in 56 innings.
“Lilly really did a nice job for us at the end of last season, giving us another arm to count on,” Smith said. “We have seen a lot from her this fall and we think she can pick up where she left off.”
Also expected to step up is senior Meagan Bond, who despite a 16-8 record last year struggled at times with a 3.36 ERA. Bond did strike out 144 batters in 135 1/3 innings of work, so at times she can be overpowering.
“Meagan had a real good fall for us,” Smith said. “We will need her to be a leader this year. I think she could have a big season.”
Offensively, last year’s team could do a little of everything, led by Claire Terracina and her team-high .372 batting average. Terracina is now gone. However, last year’s success has led to a host of others ready to help on offense.
“We are two deep at about every position, so we have competition for all spots, which is a nice thing,” Smith said. “We will need some folks to step up, but we have a lot of options.”
Outfielder Alanna DiVittorio is the top returning hitter with a .321 average with seven homers and 27 runs batted in.
“I am really looking forward to this season,” Smith said. “We are very hopefully coming off last year and what we were able to accomplish this fall. We think this could be a good season.
“We got a taste of what we can be last year. Now we have to put it together and play every game the way we can.”
As for the higher expectations, Smith says his team is ready.
“You want to be a team that people think is good and expected to win,” he said. “We have to go out and play now.”
Time for the encore.