It was a hot finish to spring break for the Southwest Minnesota State softball team as the Mustangs won six straight games to close out their trip to the Rebel Spring Games in Kissimmee, Fla. But that was almost two weeks ago, and as the Mustangs prepare for their first outdoor game outside of the state of Florida when they open Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference play today, they hope the long layoff and the weather won't cool them down.
SMSU got off to a slow start to the season, dropping its first four games by a combined score of 45-8. The early bump was to be expected for a young squad that has just one senior and two juniors on the roster.
Pitching helped bring the Mustangs out or their slide, as they have allowed three or fewer runs in each of their past five games while climbing to 7-5 overall. Rachel Hoeppner and Rachel Groff, two sophomore pitchers, played a big part in the success and will likely be key pieces to the team's growth moving forward.
"Rachel Hoeppner saw more innings for us last year so she's definitely gaining the experience she needs to compete at this level and do well in this conference," said SMSU second-year head coach Missy Bruggeman, whose team hits the road today to face NSIC newcomer Sioux Falls (S.D.) for a doubleheader. "We hope to see some good things out of her this year.
"Rachel Groff saw some innings last year as well and is looking to be that role player for us as someone who can come in in situations where we want to switch things up a bit. Both have been stepping up and filling some big shoes after losing senior Chelsey Evans from last year."
So far this season Hoeppner has posted a 5-5 record in 53 1/3 innings pitched with a 3.81 earned run average and 28 strikeouts. Groff is 2-1 with a 3.88 earned run average in 21 2/3 innings of work.
The Mustangs will rely on young players in the circle, on the field and at the plate. Bruggeman hopes first baseman Amy Dreessen, the team's lone senior, will help show those players how to be successful at the collegiate level.
Dreessen is doing a good job of leading by example so far. She has a .421 batting average with 11 RBIs and a .500 on-base percentage.
"Amy is definitely a diligent worker, someone who likes success and someone we know will put in the time and effort to allow herself to do well," Bruggeman said. "With her experience I hope to see her expand a little bit more and share that with her teammates, use that experience she's had to teach our youngsters what it takes to compete at a high level."
With so few upperclassmen, some of the younger players have also been emerging as leaders. One of those players is sophomore infielder Katelyn Kalkman. She appeared in 40 games last year and batted .216 on the season. This year she's shown drastic improvement at the plate with a .361 batting average.
"Katelyn is one of our hardest workers on the team, probably one of the most respected teammates that we have as part of our program," Bruggeman said. "The amount of time that she's put in is starting to pay off and it's nice to see her stepping up as a sophomore this year and filling that offensive role a little bit."
The rest of the lineup has had its ups and downs so far as the group of mostly sophomores and freshmen continue to adapt to the speed of the college game. The team averages 4.4 runs per game, a number Bruggeman hopes to see climb as the Mustangs go through their conference schedule.
"It's a process," she said. "We just kind of take it day by day because one day things look good and another day they're just as frustrated as they were at the beginning of the year.
"For them it's being tenacious with their at-bats and having quality at-bats and knowing what pitches they can handle, allowing them to really analyze the game from a mental perspective instead of just a physical perspective."