Batter up: Cowgirls look to establish identity, complete unfinished business

Published 11:01 am Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Two years ago the Cowgirls reached the regional championship round for the first time in program history.

Last year they were within one out of winning their first regional.

This year they hope to finish the job.

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McNeese State opens the college softball season on Thursday evening with the highest of expectations. Yet there is also much work to be done.

With an improving Southland Conference and no longer the ability to sneak up on anybody, the Cowgirls will have greater challenges to meet their experienced but young team.

“We believe we have a team that can compete on the national level,” said McNeese head coach James Landreneau, who enters his eighth season at the helm of the Cowgirls.

“You want to take the things you have learned from previous years but every season is new. You have to press the reset button each year.”

What the Cowgirls learned last year is how close they are and how hard it is to finish.

McNeese took a 6-0 lead into the seventh inning of the regional title game at Washington only to have the host Huskies rally for the win.

“You never forget that,” said junior shortstop Reese Reyna. “A moment like that you try to learn from.”

McNeese returns 17 letterwinners, including eight position starters and four pitchers from a club that won a program-record 47 games. The Cowgirls have four seniors on the roster and did not lose a player to the NCAA transfer portal.

Last year McNeese finished 47-16, winning 21 of their its last 25 games. The Cowgirls also beat four Top 25 teams during the season while winning a third consecutive SLC championship and sixth regular-season title in 10 years.

But this group isn’t going to live in the past.

“This is a different team,” said senior pitcher Ashley Vallejo. “We play loose and have fun. We are acting like little kids again, running around the field.”

Nor are they concerned about all the preseason hype that has them favored to once again win the SLC championship.

“We don’t pay any attention to that stuff,” Vallejo said.

McNeese led the conference in number of players picked for preseason honors. Eight Cowgirls earned recognition, which also released its preseason teams on Friday.

Reyna, utility player Chloe Gomez, outfielder Erin Ardoin and pitcher Ashley Vallejo, were voted to the first team. Four McNeese players — first baseman Crislyne Moreno, second baseman Mariana Torres, third baseman Rylie Bouvier, and pitcher Shaelyn Sanders — made the second time.

Vallejo will lead a pitching staff that must make up for the loss of Whitney Tate to graduation. Tate had a 1.26 earned run average and an 18-4 record last season.

Vallejo, who is coming off an injury, was 19-9 with a 2.25 ERA. Another senior, Shaelyn Sanders, is back after going 7-1 a year ago. Lefty Ryann Schexnayder is also expected to have a bigger role in the circle, Landreneau said.

“It will take everybody on our staff to contribute,” Vellajo said. “We have confidence that whoever is out there will get the job done.”

Reyna is the top hitter returning after hitting .309 in 2023. Her home run in the bottom of the eighth beat Southeastern Louisiana in the SLC title game and propelled the Cowgirls into the NCAA Tournament.

Reyna scored 34 runs and drove in another 24 while stealing 25 bases in 29 attempts.

Sophomore Connie Poncho and senior catcher Chole Gomez should also contribute to the offense. Poncho hit .341 with three home runs in 41 games last season while Gomez batted .305 with 17 RBIs in 45 outings.

“We have really been hitting the ball all over the place,” Reyna said. “I think our offense will be pretty good.”

McNeese will need that once again as Landreneau said it will have one of the tougher schedules among mid-major programs.

The Cowgirls will play eight teams that made the NCAA Tournament last year, opening with California in Lake Charles. Four of those made super regionals with two going on to the College World Series.

McNeese will play its first 14 games at home, including a pair of tournaments. Among the teams coming to town is three-time defending national champion and No. 1 ranked Oklahoma.

“The key for us is to realize this is a new team,” Landreneau said. “Last year means nothing. This team hasn’t won anything.”

This year the Cowgirls would like to win one more game, that coming in the regional final.