Professional pitchers and catchers may not have reported yet, but rest assured operations already are full-speed-ahead when it comes to college ball. That includes not only baseball, but the Morehead State softball team.
The Eagles opened their season with two games on Feb. 9, taking on Central Michigan and then Buffalo in the Mercer Invitational at Macon, Georgia They won the first game, 4-1. Game two against Buffalo was another win, 9-3.
“Hopefully we can get out there and we're as close to full strength as we can be, and we can use it as a chance to get better,” MSU Coach David Williams said during a break from indoor drills. “We've got a lot of experience this year. We're hoping we go into that first game as prepared as possible. But we really want to have a good season and start out strong. So when we go down there and open up with Central Michigan, we want to try to make a statement and position ourselves for success later on this year.”
Morehead State, 26-22 in 2017, wants so much more this time around.
“We definitely have a lot more skill than we had last year,” said Robyn Leighton, a senior catcher who led the team with 12 homers last season. “I'm really excited to see what we can do. I think we can definitely get to post-season.”
That's exactly what Williams has on his mind, too.
“Our main goal is to be playing after conference tournament,” he said. “We want to be playing in the post-season somewhere, whether it's in the NCAA Tournament or the NISC (the national invitational tournament for Division I softball). That's the main goal. We want to be playing four months from now.
“And I think that's something we can shoot for and not only obtain – like I say, we've got a lot of experience. This would be really good to go out on a positive note. We've gotten better each and every year this senior class has been here. And, really, this could be the cherry on top for them.”
Williams keeps coming back to “experience” as the asset that may set his team apart from previous editions.
But he also cites a strong infield, a pair of senior catchers, increased power, improved speed, added depth and players who can play multiple positions.
Leighton is the primary long-ball threat, although dingers are not what cross her mind when she steps to the plate.
“I just try and figure out what is my best pitch that I can hit,” Leighton said. “I try to go up there with a clear mind and just focus. If there's a certain situation, just looking for that pitch to drive. I don't necessarily go up there looking to hit a home run because it's not really the most successful (approach). Just taking good mechanics to a good pitch and, usually, success comes from that.”
Then, there's MSU's ace in the hole – pitcher Chelsea McManaway.
A 5-foot-10 senior left-hander, McManaway transferred from Findlay University and immediately took over control of the circle last season.
Over 26 starts, she went 16-9 with a 1.89 ERA, working 162.2 innings. McManaway set MSU records for strikeouts (244) and shutouts (12) in season, while tossing 22 complete games.
She fired four no-hitters, tied for third in the NCAA in shutouts and ranked 16th in strikeouts.
And McManaway says she has made improvements since last season.
“I have more control over my pitches, I think, and I'm just more prepared,” she said. “And I'm pretty excited, too, because it's my last season, and I think that has a lot to do with it.”
In addition to the mandatory fastballs, McManaway's most effective pitches are her rise and screw balls. As a catcher, Leighton has had a closeup view of McManaway's progress.
“She's better at locating a bunch of her pitches, which is good,” Leighton said. “She's still wild, which I think helps her. Well – I wouldn't say wild – she's wildly effective! Her pitches definitely move, and I think that kind of brings an element of surprise for the batter, which is in our favor.”
After an opening day twinbill, Morehead will continue play in the Mercer Invitational with games against Appalachian State and Central Michigan on Feb. 10 and versus Buffalo on Feb. 11.
Three more road tournaments will follow.
The Eagles' home opener will come in the Morehead State Classic, March 10-11, with games against IUPUI and Canisius.
How many games can MSU win this season?
“I have a number in my head (but) I have not shared that with them,” Williams said. “I think, at this point, the most important thing is going out and taking it game by game and just trying to win as many as possible. And whatever that total is at the end of the year, that's what the total is.
“The one thing we have put on it is we've said we want to be playing after conference tournament in either the NCAA Tournament or the NIT. So I think the numbers take care of themselves if we accomplish that goal right there.”