Returning the heart of the batting order from last season, the Kansas softball team will look to frustrate opposing pitching staffs in a different way than past years.
For the first time in a few seasons, the Jayhawks hope to change games with their aggressiveness on the base paths. Kansas will open its season with five games this weekend in the Stetson Leadoff Classic in Deland, Fla. KU will play Akron at 12:30 p.m. Friday and Stetson at 5:30 p.m.
Against Big 12 teams, the Jayhawks totaled three stolen bases in the last three seasons. The difference this year is freshman centerfielder Brittany Jackson, who will hit leadoff. Even if takes her time to adjust in the batter’s box, there’s no stopping her speed.
“I really think she’s going to spark our offense,” KU coach Megan Smith said of Jackson. “Her speed is something we haven’t had in quite a bit, so we’re really excited to see what she can do for us.”
Jackson, a slap hitter from Mansfield, Texas, is confident in herself and her teammates. She believes the Jayhawks will catch teams by surprise and “wreak havoc” with their speed.
In practices, when the team splits up, she’s already seen how much pressure the team’s speed puts on fielders.
“To me it looks like she’s barely running and she’s already on third base,” KU senior catcher Harli Ridling said, “and I’m like, ‘How did you just do that?’ She’s just of a different nature.”
Behind Jackson in the batting order could be three seniors: Ridling, Erin McGinley and Jessie Roane. The trio led the team in batting average last year, combining for 22 homers and 99 RBIs. Smith said Roane has been “on fire” in the weeks heading into the season opener.
The Jayhawks added utility players Brynn Minor, last year’s national junior college player of the year, from Butler Community College and Sam Dellinger from Creighton.
Players and coaches alike admit they were disappointed with the way last season played out — KU finished with a 24-28 record (3-14 in Big 12). It only added motivation in preseason practices.
“I definitely think that our team chemistry is really, really good this year,” Ridling said. “We all get along. Everyone works hard. We’re on a mission to make it to postseason. That’s our goal and everyone is on board with that. Overall, I think our team chemistry and our drive is a lot better.”
In the pitching circle, Smith said the Jayhawks plan to use their entire pitching staff. Junior Andie Formby returns after sitting out all of last season. Formby was the team’s top pitcher in 2016, limiting opponents to a .243 batting average.
KU won’t be afraid to throw three or four pitchers in each game, Smith said, if that’s what needed to keep opposing hitters off balance.
“I think that’s going to be one of our strengths this year is that we have a good pitching staff, not just one only one pitcher,” the coach said.
Preparing for their season opener, players admitted they were tired of practicing and ready to finally face another team. They counted down the days over the last couple of weeks.
“Some fellow seniors and I,” Ridling said, “we are always like, ‘Let’s make this the best season that we’ve had. Let’s have fun. Let’s go out with a bang. Leave nothing on the table because this it for us.’
"We’re ready to play and we're ready to be in some sunshine."