By Kai Raymer (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Liberal softball reached unprecedented heights in 2018.
The Bulldogs won their third straight district title, finished 25-4 overall and pushed eventual state champion Strafford to a 3-2 loss in the state semifinals.
Liberal graduated a significant portion of that success. The Bulldogs graduated a five-player senior class, including ace pitcher Delaney Freeze, who now plays for Fort Scott Community College in Kansas.
“We have a lot of uncertainties after the best spring in school history,” said Liberal coach B.J. Goodell. “We will have a lot of kids in new spots and a lot of things to figure out when the season starts.”
A new chapter of Liberal softball is ahead in 2019. The Bulldogs welcome back only three full-time starters.
Infielder Mallory Gazaway earned second team all-state honors in 2018. She’ll return as the team’s No. 3 hitter and brings a powerful bat to the lineup.
Last season, Gazaway hit .424 with six homers and 26 RBIs. She posted a .788 slugging percentage and an on-base plus slugging percentage of 1.322.
“She’s a big part of what we have done the last three years,” Goodell said. “She will be our leader and we will look to her for solid defense wherever we put her. She’ll help generate runs in our lineup.”
Taylor Ray played second base for Liberal last season but could see time at pitcher this season. Ray scored 33 runs and had 16 RBIs last season.
“She will definitely end up on the infield somewhere and play an important role in our lineup,” Goodell said.
Jessica Roby split time between right field and designated player (DP) in 2018. She hit .325 with 19 RBIs and 19 runs.
“She can play the left side of the infield or left field for us. Her bat will be in the top half of our lineup,” Goodell said.
Freeze was a force in circle and at the plate for Liberal.
As a pitcher, she went 24-1 last season with 280 strikeouts and a 1.01 ERA. She finished with nearly 1,000 career strikeouts.
At the plate, Freeze belted 12 homers, had 40 RBIs and posted a 1.164 slugging percentage.
The Bulldogs also graduated Kaylee Daniels, Jaci Coleman, Callie Cornell and Sydnee Hood. Daniels and Coleman hit over .400.
Liberal, a former member of the Spring River Valley Conference, joined the Western Missouri (WEMO) Conference last summer.
Varsity newcomers include four sophomores and two juniors. The juniors are Sierra McCuistion and Skylie Neal.
McCuistion’s in line to become the team’s starting first baseman.
“She had a little knee issue in volleyball (last fall) but that should be cleared up and ready for a good spring season,” Goodell said. “We hope her two years of JV has her ready to take advantage of her opportunity to play full-time this season.”
Neal, who also will compete in track for Liberal, could fill a utility role as an infielder, outfielder or catcher if she plays.
The sophomores include Macy Bean, Jenna Perry, Kaylee Wallace and Keirstyn Larson.
Bean will hit in the middle of Liberal’s lineup and provide pitching duties.
“She had a home run and a triple with 4 RBIs in a game last spring when given the opportunity to play,” Goodell said. “We hope to see the ball jumping off that bat this year as she will play a large role for us.”
Perry was the team’s go-to courtesy runner last spring. She tallied 19 runs overall.
“This year she will be out manning the outfield for us as she has worked hard on tracking balls and improving in that role for us,” Goodell said. “We aren’t sure where in the lineup she will be, but we’ll utilize her speed for sure.”
Wallace projects as a catcher or third baseman, Goodell said. Larson can play multiple positions, too.
“We have a couple options at pitcher,” Goodell said. “We know Mallory (Gazaway) Taylor (Ray) and Jessica (Roby’s) bats will be in the lineup. We’re eager to see how our JV kids from (2018) receive the torch passed on from our players last year.”
Liberal will already be without two likely starters.
Gracie Bott, a sophomore, had a knee injury in the winter while playing basketball and will miss the spring softball season.
Senior Brooke Bearden, in line to be the team’s starting catcher, suffered a stroke. Bearden will be in the team’s dugout this spring to provide moral support.
“She has been in the hospital and away to Colorado for lots of therapy and rehab,” Goodell said. “The strides she has made every day have been nothing short of a miracle. We are so excited to have her back with us this spring.”
Liberal opens the regular season March 16 at the WEMO Conference Tournament. The Bulldogs’ home opener is March 18 against Stockton.