By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Strafford softball finished the 2021 season with a record of 12-14, falling to eventual Class 2 state champion Skyline in the district title game.
Head coach Dale Bean, entering his eighth season at the Strafford helm, was pleased with his young team’s significant development steps down the stretch.
“The team was very underclassmen-heavy last season,” Bean said. “Towards the end of the season, our girls started turning the corner with their development showing us they had the potential to be a solid team to compete against. To show our progress from the beginning of the season to the end, we were able to compete against the Class 1 and 2 state champions of 2021, just losing by one run in both games.”
A lone graduate senior departed the program in Emma Ivey, who will continue her softball career this season at Culver-Stockton University.
Replacing Ivey’s production will be no easy task; however, another Emma is poised to step into that role.
Senior pitcher Emma Mullings returns to lead the Indians this season.
Mullings, an all-conference, all-district and all-region selection in 2021, posted 12 wins, 115 strikeouts and an ERA of 3.74.
“Emma is our leader on and off the field,” Bean said. “The team looks up to her, and she has been able to bring seriousness and focus to a young team when the situation has called for it and also bring joy and laughter when it is also needed. She has a quick bat and hits for a high average and is a fearless bulldog on the mound.”
Mullings will be joined by another key returnee in battery mate Evelyn Comstock.
Comstock, a sophomore catcher, was also named to all-conference, all-district and all-region teams last season. She hit .500 with 5 home runs and 22 runs batted in.
“Evelyn led our team last year in several offensive categories and has proved to a lot of teams last year that she will be a very difficult out,” Bean said. “She brings an amazing work ethic, loves the sport, is a great teammate and a team player. She is willing to do whatever it takes to make our program successful.”
The pair are joined by fellow returnees Lauren Jones, Mya Highfill, Ashley Suter, Natalie Gannon, Addy Crocker, Ally Rust, Ashley Whitlow and Shea Dobbins.
Jones, a sophomore shortstop, received all-conference and all-district honors last season.
“Lauren has great power and speed to be a real threat in the top of the order and defensively, she has quick hands and feet and she fielded her position incredibly well last year for a freshman,” Bean said. “We look to see her stand out for us in all of those same areas this coming season.”
Highfill, a sophomore third baseman, also garnered all-conference and all-district honors in 2021.
“Mya has great leadership qualities that shine through each and every practice,” Bean said. “She is able to stay focused and keep her head in the game in all types of situations. She has several tools, she has good hand-eye coordination with the bat and her glove, and she really swung the bat well over the summer, so we are excited to see that carry over into the season.”
Suter, a junior, will hold down duties at first base for the Indians.
“Ashley has great height and athleticism to be a top-notch first baseman,” Bean said. “She has really grown as a player and we are excited to see her development from one year to the next. There is a lot of pop in her bat and she brings a hardworking attitude to the team.”
Gannon, a sophomore second baseman and pitcher, was named to the all-conference team as a freshman.
“We will look to Natalie to pitch some big innings for us throughout the season, as well as playing infield and possibly some outfield,” Bean said. “We are looking forward to her using her softball experience to help lead others and play a big role for us now and in the future.”
Crocker, a junior outfielder, will return to center field for Strafford.
“We will turn to Addy this season to help anchor our outfield,” Bean said. “Last season was Addy’s first season to play on the varsity team and was tasked with playing a very vital role. She works hard every practice and we are looking forward to that hard work paying off in a big way this season for her!”
Rust (SO), Whitlow (JR) and Dobbins (JR) all return to patrol the Strafford outfield this season.
“We will look to Ally to nail down a corner outfield position this coming season,” Bean said. “Ashley will be looked upon to help lead the team in a major utility role and Shea worked herself into the lineup up a few games in her first year playing varsity softball.”
In addition to its experienced lineup of returning players, Strafford also welcomes a quartet of newcomers to the varsity roster in Presley McCain, Emma Brantner, Chloe Coble and Abby Messina.
Bean is hopeful the valuable experience garnered last season will pay dividends as his team prepares to enter the 2022 campaign.
“We have a team that has players that mesh well with each other,” Bean said. “They do not want to let their coaches down and are willing to put the team before themselves. We will need to bring some confidence into the season and be prepared to compete in every game.”
In the circle, the Indians will look to Mullings and Gannon to set the tone defensively.
“We are two pitchers deep in the circle,” Bean said. “We are returning a senior pitcher with lots of big games experience from last season, and we are also returning a sophomore who will be able to help take some innings to lighten the load of the season.”
At the plate, Strafford’s offense should continue to improve on last season’s numbers with the emergence of developing power throughout the lineup.
“Our lineup has the potential to be solid coming into the season,” Bean said. “We will still have a fairly young lineup without a lot of at-bats under their belts, but this year we look for more girls to come into their own offensively. We have the potential to hit for a high average and some good gap to gap power. There should be a few long balls this season, but mostly our offense will look to put the ball in play and use our overall good team speed to put pressure on the defense.”
Returning experience will also greatly benefit the Indians in the field this season.
“I like what our defense is shaping up to be heading into the season,” Bean said. “We have our positions returning this year, and if we are able to pick up where we left off, the learning curve for most of our girls will not be as high coming into the season.”
Strafford opens its regular season at home March 19 with the Indians Invitational Tournament.