By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
While Nixa’s softball program has benefitted from consistency, the program hasn’t been able to make it over the district hump since 2010. The Lady Eagles have been close, falling to the eventual district champion in each of the past four seasons.
With a solid returning core, head coach Matt Walker feels Nixa will, once again, be in the hunt for a title in a highly-competitive district.
“Last year we ended up 16-15,” Walker said. “We hoped to compete for a district championship, but lost in the semi-finals. I have and still feel our district is one of the strongest around. I would like to see us contend for a conference championship and a district championship, but both are extremely difficult feats.”
With the Lady Eagles only losing three players to graduation in Rylie Bennett (P/1B), Shelby Ritz (SS) and Lauren Herman (OF), the team’s returning experience could prove vital.
That experience starts with senior Morgan Jones, the team’s No. 1 pitcher looking to improve on last season’s 5-11 record.
“Morgan had some struggles in the circle, but faced our tougher opponents last year,” Walker said. “She still managed to hit .490 with nine home runs and 38 RBI.”
Classmates Sam Aring (3B) and Payton Ward (C) will also help anchor Nixa’s lineup and provide senior leadership.
“Sam Aring (.400 / 4 HR / 24 RBI) moved here from Texas before last season,” Walker said. “I look for her to have another good season. I also look for good things from Payton Ward (.426 / 3 HR / 14 RBI), who was limited last season with injuries and only played in 16 games.”
A pair of sophomores in Maya Herman (2B) and Jaden LaBarge (P) round out the key returnees for the Lady Eagles.
Walker also feels the spirit of competition among the Nixa’s mix of newcomers will benefit the team as the season progresses.
“As far as newcomers, I am not sure at this time,” Walker said. “I have several juniors, a couple sophomores and a freshman who could see significant playing time. My hope is that by the end of the season, they all make it a very difficult choice for me as to who to play.”
Success for the Lady Eagles this season begins in the circle, according to Walker. Morgan will be the team’s ace, and LaBarge will the team’s No. 2. Herman is also a capable arm that can eat up innings when necessary.
“I feel like we have a chance of being pretty good this season, but it all comes down to pitching,” Walker said. “We are going to turn to Morgan Jones, who has gained experience the past two years that I think will help her through this season. She is not an overpowering pitcher, but spins it very well when on. Jaden LaBarge throws harder than Morgan, so it could be a good combination.”
With several returning starters, Walker also has high hopes for the Lady Eagles’ in the field backing up Jones this season.
“I feel like my defense this year should be better than it was last,” Walker said. “We, as a team, made 53 errors last year, so we gave our opponents 53 extra outs and/or extra bases last year. That makes it hard to win.”
Walker also feels added speed and pop in the lineup should translate to additional run support throughout the season.
“Every year I think that we are going to be OK at a particular aspect of the game and, by the end of the season, that is what we end up struggling at,” Walker said. “But I feel that we will have the ability to put up some runs this season.”
Following jamboree play on Aug. 18 with Rogersville, Walnut Grove and Republic, Nixa opens the season Aug. 24 against Kickapoo.