By Pat Dailey (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
It surely had nothing to do with the talent on hand that Willow Springs was still searching for a coach in mid-May.
When Tracy and Bobby Cottengim resigned as the Lady Bears’ coaches in the spring, Willow Springs had no teaching vacancy to offer with the softball job. Looking for an internal candidate, Ryan Bunch emerged as the most likely choice due to his background as an assistant baseball coach.
Fate allowed Bunch to take over the program.
“I happened to be in position to coach the team,” said Bunch, who has no experience coaching softball. “But my wife had just had a baby boy. There were complications with him and because of that I wasn’t sure I wanted to coach at that time. But he’s okay and I decided to take a chance with the girls.
“They are a good group and very talented. I never got to go to a Final Four as a player and haven’t experienced that as a coach. That was a factor in my decision in wanting to coach this group. Having all this talent, I think we can make a run. We have very high expectations. We expect to compete for a District championship as well as make a run at the Final Four. Those are our hopes and goals.”
Willow Springs indeed appears primed for a banner season. The Lady Bears welcome back seven returning starters, including senior pitcher Sydney Miller. She was 17-7 with a 2.47 ERA and 188 strikeouts and 40 walks over 147.1 innings last year.
“She’s a very intelligent pitcher,” Bunch said. “She has a dominant fast ball. But if I had to pick one of her pitches as her best pitch, it would be her rise ball. She commands her fast ball and rise ball so well. It’s hard for hitters to realize she’s thrown her rise ball until they’ve already swung at it.
“She’s working on her changeup. She doesn’t have control of it, yet. That is something we’ve worked on over the summer.”
As a leadoff hitter, Miller batted .525 last year.
Bunch also likes that he has standouts through the middle of his defense in center fielder Krysta Rader and catcher Emily Fair. Rader hit .452 with three home runs and 32 RBIs last year and Fair .380.
“Most of the great hitters have either speed or power, but (Rader) has both,” Bunch said. “She can lay down a bunt and beat it out easily. But teams have to play her straight up because she is such a good hitter.
“(Fair) has the best arm behind the plate in our District, does a great job blocking and commands our staff well. She knows the game.”
Bunch thinks cleanup hitter Bella Melvin (.229) has improved as much as any of the Lady Bears.
“Teams may try to pitch around Emily because she is such a good hitter,” Bunch said. “But all summer Bella made teams pay for that. We’ve widened her stance and she’s comfortable with it. She’s gotten better and has become a gap hitter with lots of doubles.”
Likewise, Bunch’s hunch is many of his hitters will show improvement at the plate.
“In the past, the girls fielded well and pitched well,” Bunch said. “I thought one aspect of the game they needed to improve on was hitting. We’ve worked on plate discipline and putting ourselves in good position. What I mean by that is getting ahead in the count. If you’re up in the count 2-0, we’re sitting on a fast ball where the hitter wants it.”
Other returning starters are second baseman Emily Scarborough (.189), left fielder Alexa Fredrick (.340) and third baseman Courtney Melvin (.242).
Newcomers are right eider Reagan Brock and shortstop Chloe Charlin, a freshman.
“We had a big hole to fill at shortstop,” Bunch said. “Chloe has done a nice job filling that void. She’s fielding as well as anybody we have.”
With most South Central Association teams playing softball in the spring, Willow Springs has to scramble to fill its schedule. One highlight of the upcoming slate is a matchup with West Plains.
“We’re not afraid to compete with the Class 3 and Class 4 teams,” Bunch said. “When you can add that game against a team 20 minutes down the road, that’s a no-brainer.”