By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Joplin softball took a big step forward under new head coach Brenden Schneider last season.
The Eagles finished with a 23-11 record, falling to Ozark in the district tournament.
“I think last year was a big year for the girls understanding how difficult the competition is inside our conference and district,” Schneider said. “Yes we won 23 games but finished in the middle of the pack in our conference, so we are aware of how hard we need to work to continue our success.”
Joplin has reason for optimism, as a trio of potent hitters return to the top of its lineup in Jadyn Pankow, Bailey Ledford and Abby Lowery.
Pankow, an all-district first baseman, hit .438 last season with 8 doubles and 30 runs batted in as a sophomore.
“Jadyn is a very smart and aggressive player and we’ve seen her improve over the last year in a lot of different areas,” Schneider said. “We look to her to be an anchor in our lineup.”
Ledford, an all-district senior third baseman, finished her junior season with a .443 average, 21 runs batted in and 27 stolen bases.
“Bailey is going to be in her fourth year starting at third base and brings a lot to our team,” Schneider said. “She’s our leadoff hitter and her speed allows her to put pressure on defenders. This speed also allows her to be a plus defender in the hot corner. We will look to her to be a leader on the infield.”
Lowery, an all-district junior outfielder, hit .441 as a sophomore with 31 runs batted in.
“Having [Lowery] and Bailey as a one-two punch in our lineup helps give us a lot of confidence in our ability to score at the top of our lineup,” Schneider said. “She’s really focused on improving her outfield skills and is excited for the year.”
Joplin also returns Libby Munn, Riley Kelly, Marla Loum, Taryn Casey and Kirsten McMillen to the varsity lineup this season.
Munn, a junior infielder/outfielder, hit .247 last season with 29 runs batted in and 8 home runs.
“Libby played left field for us last year but is athletic enough to play in multiple spots so her flexibility will be an asset on defense,” Schneider said. “We are looking for her to play infield primarily. Last year she led us in home runs, and we look for her to be an impact bat for us again this year.”
Kelly, an all-district junior catcher, hit .333 as a sophomore with 28 runs batted in.
“Riley has been one of our varsity catchers and a middle of the order bat,” Schneider said. “She’s a very hard worker that is willing to do the dirty work behind the plate to help us. We are looking to see her continue to grow as a leader behind the plate.”
Loum, a junior infielder, finished with a .344 average and 17 runs batted in last season.
“Maria is quite the athlete, and we are really looking forward to stepping her game up on both sides of the ball,” Schneider said. “Now having experienced varsity ball the past two years we feel she’s ready to blossom.”
Casey, as senior outfielder, hit .333 last season and scored 20 runs for the Eagles.
“Taryn will be looking to lock down a starting job in the outfield this year,” Schneider said. “She’s improved every year and we are excited to see how she’s grown as a player.”
McMillen, a senior catcher, hit .211 with 16 runs batted in as a junior.
“Kirsten has been a catcher for us for three years now and has the potential to elevate her game to new heights this year,” Schneider said. “We will look to her to be a senior leader that can help us in lots of areas.”
Peyton Meadows, Ava Wolf, Caelyn Bobski, Ashley Phillips, Megan Meeker and Carlie Howard also return for Joplin and will see increased roles this season after limited varsity action..
Wolf and Bobski, both sophomore pitchers, will likely share time in the circle.
“Ava and Caelyn will be our primary pitchers this year,” Schneider said. “Combined they threw 60 varsity innings in the fall and showed that they can be successful at the varsity level. Getting that experience last year will be invaluable.”
With a host of talent and experience returning to the lineup, Scheider has high hopes for his program’s continued development.
“We just want to improve from last year,” Schneider said. “That sounds funny to say after winning 23 games but I know the girls feel like we can be better. We have added some very competitive games to our schedule and hope that by the end of the year we have put ourselves in a position to compete for a district and conference championship.”
While Scheider believes Joplin has the pieces in place to take another step forward this season, a lot will depend on his young pitching staff’s development.
“Pitchers are so important in softball,” Scheider said. “We have two young pitchers that are hungry to show people what they can do. Another thing that will be big for us is our mental toughness. Our season is a grind, and we need to have the mental toughness to deal with struggles that may pop up.”
Following an Aug. 22 jamboree in Carthage, Joplin opens its season Aug. 25 in the Aurora Tournament.