02/14/06 — MOC softball ready to make strides

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MOC softball ready to make strides

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on February 14, 2006 2:20 PM

Moments after finishing a softball practice in the fall, fourth-year Mount Olive College coach Jamie Kylis-Higginbotham pulled Erin Wilson to the side.

Wilson had torn the cover off the ball all afternoon and a puzzled Kylis-Higginbotham silently wondered what had fired up the junior.

"What is up with you?" Kylis-Higginbotham asked. "You are just lighting it up."

"I refuse to have a year like last year again," said Wilson.

One of several two-position players on this year's squad, Wilson emerged the Trojans' top offensive player as freshman. Her numbers dropped significantly a year ago, including her batting average, which dipped well below the team average of .210.

"That mental anger when they don't succeed kind of sets the tone when our younger girls see that from our returners," said a smiling Kylis-Higginbotham. "I think that's contagious. We're getting great feedback from practices. Three hours goes by in the blink of an eye.

"It's been a new vibe."

Kylis-Higginbotham eagerly admits the Trojans experienced some good things last season, including regular-season victories over conference rivals Queens University and Coker (S.C.) College. But, the overall numbers reflect the same problem Kylis-Higginbotham has encountered in three seasons -- how do the Trojans pull out close victories and put away the "bad" teams?

"I had to think about what I can do to mentally prepare them because I think it's all mental with us," said Kylis-Higginbotham. "It's not about talent because we beat some good teams this fall and competed with some good teams.

"Our goal for practice this year has been to practice every situation so no team can put us in a situation that we're not prepared for. If that happens, then I've failed as a coach."

But Kylis-Higginbotham has taken an extra step in improving the team's mental focus. Batters don't hit against a machine every day, but against their own pitchers. And the pitchers aren't allowed to throw batting practice, but must challenge the hitters, whose weaknesses are attached to their jerseys.

Kylis-Higginbotham challenges the pitchers to strike out the batter. At the same time, she encourages the hitters to capitalize on the pitcher's mistake and take it over the fence.

"It's a constant battle and it's really helped us," said Kylis-Higginbotham.

A new 'energy'

Mount Olive's mental preparation doesn't stop there.

During the offseason, Kylis-Higginbotham scoured the JUCO circuit for some top-notch players. She signed the trio of Rigil Gruca, Tiffanie Pittman and Krystal Bourne in the fall.

Gruca received attention two years ago when Kylis-Higginbotham recruited her along with current Trojan pitcher Shauna Cowdrey. Gruca chose to attend school in Florida and enjoyed banner seasons at Palm Beach Community College and Nova Southeastern.

Pittman and Bourne have also pushed the returning players in practice. But Gruca, according to Kylis-Higginbotham, "plays every day like it's her last day."

"It's amazing and my kids have fed off that," said Kylis-Higginbotham, whose career record is 38-104. "My juniors refuse to have a losing season. They come to practice with fire in their eyes and intensity.

"Every day they have enthusiasm and want to learn."

Kylis-Higginbotham attributes that new energy to assistant coach Londa Kauffman. A former collegiate standout, Kaufman and Kylis-Higginbotham have spent countless hours scanning the internet for material to help their players. Computer software designed to assist a player with their swing has garnered much attention.

"Hitting, with us, has been touch and go," said Kylis-Higginbotham. "Our offensive power has been a weakness for us and our average has been improving every year. But, when we have our top hitter batting just under .300, that's really not successful in my opinion.

"We've been in double digits with one- or two-run losses with runners in scoring position and that's been frustrating. This year, we've practiced those pressure situations and told the players you have a consequence if you don't produce. Softball is a game of failure and who fails less usually wins. How crazy is that?"

Mount Olive posted a 17-33 record last season which included a 10-13 mark in contests decided by two runs or less. The Trojans produced just 89 RBI among 13 players who saw action in 17 or more games.

Sophomore Bailey Harrell, who starred at Kinston High School, earned second-team all-Carolinas-Virginia Athletics Conference accolades after hitting .235. Harrell started in 49 games and had 31 RBI.

Melissa Bright, a junior infielder, drove in 41 runs last season in 123 plate appearances. Catcher Jamie Pruitt batted .223 with 30 RBI, and notched a team-leading 307 putouts.

"We've got a couple of hitters who are starting to recognize a pitcher's favorite pitch, but are also recognizing their mistakes," said Kylis-Higginbotham. "A good hitter will recognize (the mistake) and hit it. We've worked hard on confidence (at the plate).

"We're at the point where we definitely need to be challenged by someone else."

Achieving goals

Kylis-Higginbotham had her players sit in a circle during the fall and told them to set a goal for the player to their left. Each player also received a goal book and Kylis-Higginbotham encouraged them to write down goals in their books.

"I said 'you set a goal and tell me about it because I want to know what's going on inside your head,'" said Kylis-Higginbotham. "It might be totally different than what I'm thinking."

When a goal is set, practice stops.

The player tells Kylis-Higginbotham what was accomplished and the energy level immediately increases from that point. It could be anything from backhanding a ground ball cleanly, properly covering defensively on a double play, hitting the right pitch in a run-scoring situation, etc.

"It's amazing what it does for everyone's confidence ... everyone just gets so excited about it," said a grinning Kylis-Higginbotham. "When you see a freshman set a goal for a senior or returner, the whole practice just gets better.

"That just makes your day. It's cool that they're constantly striving to get better."

Putting it together

Seeing the mental improvement in practice is great, but Kylis-Higginbotham is anxious to see if the leadership and maturity carries over into the regular season.

Mount Olive opens its 2006 campaign Wednesday with a doubleheader at N.C. Central.

"We know our first game is going to be a challenge," said Kylis-Higginbotham. "I hope mentally we're prepared for it and they seem to be at practice. We've brought in experienced players, and our junior class has seen the talent and knows it can beat the talent."

The next challenge for Kylis-Higginbotham and Kauffman is to determine a starting lineup against NCCU. With 17 "legitimate" players, the coaches aren't sure who'll be where when the first pitch is thrown.

Cowdrey might get the mound start for game one. The junior right-hander fashioned a 2.67 earned run average (ERA) and threw nine complete games en route to an 8-15 record last spring.

Cowdrey is the only Trojan who received either CVAC Player or Pitcher of the Week honors a year ago. Newcomer Christine Ermer will handle relief duties when Cowdrey pitches.

"Christine ... her ball, literally, will do the cha-cha down the middle of the plate," said Kylis-Higginbotham. "She'll piggyback Shauna very well and keep the batters off balance, which is the goal. Shauna throws a fast, heavy ball and if hitters catch up to it, we could get into trouble. We like to mix her up a little bit."

Kylis-Higginbotham said Bourne will probably go the distance each time she's in the circle.

Another mental barrier

CVAC peers picked the Trojans to finish seventh overall in the 11-team league. Kylis-Higginbotham expected a "middle of the pack" slot.

"It's not where you're picked, but where you finish," said Kylis-Higginbotham. "It's been exciting to watch them grow and I feel we've got a good bunch of kids. It's mind-boggling watching 18 young women get along well.

"It's just a matter now of going forward."