Picked to finish fifth in the South Division in the Midwest Conference preseason coaches poll, the Knox softball team looks to combine a core of returning starters with a wave of freshmen contributors to surprise the competition this season.
Senior Amber Eisha, who enters her final year at Knox as a three time All-MWC selection, will lead the Prairie Fire once again after finishing in the top 10 in the conference in both batting (.381) and slugging percentage (.608).
Eisha will also be expected to handle the majority of the workload in the circle, which has been her primary focus this offseason.
“I’ve been doing a lot more work with my off-speed pitches. The last few years the movement has been hit or miss, this season I really want to be more consistent with those pitches,” she said.
Eisha is looking to bounce back from a 2013 campaign that saw a decrease in her strikeout rate while her ERA jumped to 5.23 from 4.79 her sophomore year. She will once again be followed in the rotation by sophomore Karli Shields, who contributed over 61 innings for the Prairie Fire last season.
Other returning starters for the Prairie Fire include senior Alyssa Bleidorn and juniors Kayla Behrens, Rhiannon Neuville, Claire Neri and Brittney Price. Behrens led Knox with 21 RBI last season while Neuville led the team with 15 runs scored. Neri and Price started a combined 36 games for the Prairie Fire in 2013.
With voids to fill at catcher and middle infield, Head Coach Ashley Sims noted the importance of freshmen Kaly Davidson and Chelsey Howard.
“With [Davidson and Howard] we have a couple of options behind the plate and Davidson has shown some versatility at shortstop as well,” she said.
Eisha was also impressed with the pair of Prairie Fire rookies.
“As seniors it’s our responsibility to make sure everybody is ready to go. When [freshmen] step up, it sends a good message to the team that everyone has potential,” she said.
Like their baseball counterparts, the Prairie Fire have not had the opportunity to get outside this season. With their first game scheduled for next Monday in Springfield against Benedictine University coach Sims said that while the weather has been frustrating the Prairie Fire, it has not put a dampen on practice.
“We’ve been running through a lot of situational stuff, and the players have responded with a lot of energy, which is all you can ask for at this point,” Sims said.
The Prairie Fire will hit the ground running when they travel to Ft. Myers, Fla. for spring break, playing eight games in five days during the Gene Cusic Classic.
“It will be interesting,” Sims said. “A lot of the teams we are going to play down there will have played at least four or five games and will have the rust knocked off. For us it is going to be huge to finally get some real game reps.”
Eisha cited that the players are anxious to get their “spikes in the dirt”.
“We have nothing to lose when we are down there. It isn’t for conference, so we just need to go out there and play hard,” she said. “When we get back we will know exactly what we are capable of.”
The Prairie Fire kick off the trip with games against Nichols College and Rutgers-Newark University on March 18.