The 2014 season for Grace College’s softball team was a groundbreaking one in many aspects. The Lady Lancers racked up the program’s most wins (29) since 1994, won its most league wins ever (19) and advanced to a national tournament for the first time since 1997.
Grace reached the final day of the 2014 NCCAA World Series, placing fourth under head coach Heather Johnson.
But there was still room for improvement last spring, setting the stage for what Johnson hopes will be an even more memorable 2015.
“I think this year is about taking another step forward as a program. We have the talent, ability and depth in positions to get better as the season goes on,” Johnson said. “We aren’t the underdog anymore which is a huge switch for us. This year our expectations are to pick up where we left off last year.”
Grace stumbled out of the gate last year, losing 12 of its first 16 games. But the Lady Lancers hit their collective stride after the rough start, posting a 25-18 record over the final two months of the season.
Johnson has decided to test Grace early in 2015 with a daunting nonleague schedule. The Lady Lancers will play nine games against teams either ranked or receiving votes in the NAIA Top-25 Coaches’ Preseason Poll, including a doubleheader against No. 2 William Carey on March 13. Grace will travel to Tennessee, Florida and Mississippi to take on the NAIA’s top teams over the first month of the year.
“My philosophy is that you play the competition of the level that you want to be at. Taylor and Huntington were picked ahead of us in the preseason Crossroads League poll, and they both went to NAIA’s [last year] so we are right at the door,” Johnson said. “If your goal is to be nationally ranked and recognized, then you have to play teams at that level. It’s not just our goal to get to a national tournament but to play well there.”
For Grace to reach its potential in 2015, the squad will look to its senior All-American Brooke Shell. The speedy outfielder was First Team NCCAA All-American and honorable mention for NAIA All-American in 2014, setting three single-season records including most hits (94), most runs (64) and most stolen bases (38) in team history.
Shell already sits at first place among Grace’s career leaders in stolen bases with 59 and is poised to become the program’s career hits leader. She has 171 hits entering the season and needs 29 more to pass Olivia Winget for first place.
“Every time I fill out my lineup card, there is one position I know every time – Brooke Shell at leadoff,” Johnson said. “She sets the pace and competitive course for our team. She’s hard on herself, and her teammates now have that same drive. She wants to go out with a bang as a senior.”
Joining Shell’s offensive prowess is a potent lineup. Sophomore Clarissa Knight set a single-season record with 56 RBIs as a freshman and batted .386. Hannah Adams (.311) and Samantha Johnson (.301) also return for their sophomore seasons after topping .300 in 2014.
Freshmen Kati Gregory, who originally signed to play at the University of Evansville, and Hannah Herbster add a pair of powerful bats to Grace’s lineup. Herbster batted .690 as a senior at LaVille High School, ranking third in the state for batting average.
Grace’s offense tied for sixth in the Crossroads League last year with 5.1 runs/game. But Johnson is hoping the Lady Lancers’ offense transforms into a formidable force in 2015 with its new additions.
“In the past, we couldn’t afford to make mistakes on defense because we weren’t scoring runs. But this year we just want to be frustrating to teams,” Johnson said. “I don’t think we rely on one area this year. We aren’t all power, all slappers or all contact hitters, but we’re trying to put all of that together and have a lot of offensive weapons to throw at teams. We scored a lot of runs this fall, so I’m excited to see how we look this spring.”
Adams and freshman Chandler Elliott are expected to anchor Grace’s pitching rotation this year. Adams posted a 2.54 ERA in 17 league games. Alex Shipley (3.20 ERA), Amanda Bowman and Allison Franklin provided much-needed experience and depth to the pitching rotation, and Herbster also looks to earn innings on the mound.
Brittany Melzoni, Chelsea Whitesell, Morgan Cody, Morgan Hutcheson and Maribeth Strong all return from last year’s postseason run at the NCCAA World Series. And Johnson has revamped Grace’s lineup with talented freshmen Ashley Kleinbub, Brittany Turner, Herbster, Elliott and Gregory.
While Grace is hoping for growth on the diamond this spring, Johnson is excited for the personal growth she’s witnessed already within the Lady Lancers.
“This team has really grown off the field as much as they have on the field. They are growing in their spiritual lives and in their relationships with one another. I think that will pay high dividends as the season progresses,” Johnson said. “I’m excited for what this team can do physically, but their love for one another and commitment to the team excites me even more.”
The Lady Lancers start the season this weekend in Pulaski, Tenn., for the Martin Methodist Meltdown. Grace will then travel to Clermont, Fla., for 10 games during Spring Break.