The thrill of beating national powerhouse Arizona on the road to make the Women’s College World Series is still a vivid memory for the Baylor softball team.
Nobody gave the Lady Bears much of a chance to upset the Wildcats on their field in the Super Regionals. But that experience, followed by Baylor’s fourth World Series appearance in school history, gives the veterans a great deal of confidence as they head into the 2018 season.
“I think the excitement is still going,” said Baylor senior first baseman Shelby Friudenberg. “It’s still lingering. We still have that taste in our mouths, so we’re ready to go back. You don’t ever feel you have that many people watching you. But when you’re at the World Series everyone’s watching you.”
With seven position starters returning along with pitcher Gia Rodoni, the Lady Bears believe they can get back to the World Series and win some games after going two-and-out last season.
Picked second in the Big 12 behind two-time defending national champion Oklahoma, the No. 10 Lady Bears will open the season with a three-game series at Getterman Stadium against Northwestern State. Friday’s opener is set for 6 p.m. while Saturday’s doubleheader will begin at 2 p.m.
Baylor not only returns Friudenberg and first-team all-Big 12 players like centerfielder Jessie Scroggins and leftfielder Kyla Walker, it added three talented former SEC players.
Senior Carlee Wallace was an all-SEC catcher for Auburn, sophomore second baseman Nicky Dawson played for LSU, and junior right-hander Regan Green will add depth to the Baylor pitching staff after going 11-6 for Mississippi State last season.
“We have the potential to be better than last year,” Walker said. “We didn’t lose many people from last year, so I think we have a really veteran solid team. We’re very experienced and I think that will give us a lot of momentum this year. I think the newcomers will help the veterans and bring in a new life that makes us want to be better.”
Rodoni is ready to become Baylor’s ace after pitching behind Kelsee Selman last season and Heather Stearns in 2016. The junior right-hander showed she had ace potential last season as she went 18-4 with a 1.72 ERA and threw no-hitters in the NCAA tournament against Kent State and James Madison at Getterman Stadium.
“We’ve set that bar pretty high for her and she did it herself,” said Baylor coach Glenn Moore. “Gia’s got the mentality of a big-time pitcher. She’s throwing the ball hard right now in the mid-60s consistently. I don’t see her being a double-digit strikeout type of pitcher but we’ll have good defense. She’s capable of winning big games as we saw last year.”
Backing Rodoni will be Green and right-hander Shelby “Goose” McGlaun, who went 6-2 with a 2.43 ERA for the Lady Bears last season. Green struck out 44 batters in 46.2 innings as a sophomore for Mississippi State last year.
“Regan is a smart pitcher, she’s very demanding of herself, a perfectionist,” Moore said. “And she knows what she needs to do. She hit mid-60s (mph) pitching, so that’s a good speed to make balls move right. The key for her, in my opinion, is to be able to saw off hands and go in on them. And she likes to do that. Experience-wise, she’s a little bit behind Gia right now, but she’s got a lot of the same stuff.”
While Rodoni is confident in taking over the No. 1 pitching role, she likes the depth Baylor has on its staff.
“I’ve had two good role models to look to the last two years, so I’m ready to take that role and lead the team,” Rodoni said. “Goose looks great and has improved a lot from last year. Having Regan now is another good tool we have. I’m feeling real confident right now.”
The Lady Bears led the Big 12 with a .321 team batting average last year as All-American senior third baseman Lindsey Cargill batted a league-high .430 and Walker ranked second with a .418 average. But Moore expects the Bears to become a bigger power-hitting team after slugging 38 homers last season.
“We set our school record in team batting average,” Moore said. “What I want to see this year is more extra bases. The common thought was that Baylor hits really high but they’re all singles. That’s accurate because we hit singles in our short game. But I’d like to hit a few more home runs and more doubles, and maybe a triple or two in there with our speed would be nice.”
While Cargill and second-team all-Big 12 second baseman Ari Hawkins are significant losses, Baylor’s lineup could be tougher for pitchers from top to bottom.
With Walker and Scroggins at the top of the order, Baylor will set the table with tremendous speed for the power hitters. Walker batted over .400 for the second straight season while hitting a team-high five triples and stealing 19 bases.
“I think she’ll swing away a lot more this year,” Moore said. “I wouldn’t say she’d call herself a power hitter, but she’ll certainly be swinging the bat more than just slapping it, and adding another dimension to her game.”
Scroggins ranked third on the squad with a .352 average while hitting three homers and stealing 17 bases. She was named the Big 12 defensive player of the year after repeatedly making spectacular catches in center field.
“Scroggins is maybe the best centerfielder in the nation,” Moore said. “She feels good about her game, she’s got a little swagger out there. She certainly does a great job there and Walker is pretty good in left field as well.”
The middle of Baylor’s order will feature the power trio of Wallace, Friudenberg and McGlaun.
After hitting .345 with a team-high 11 homers and 51 RBIs last season, Friudenberg is on the verge of setting the school home run record. She is currently tied for third with Linsey Hays with 40 career homers, standing behind Chelsea Lake with 44 and Brette Reagan with 41.
Friudenberg led the Lady Bears with 33 walks last season, but pitchers might not be able to pitch around her as easily with so many talented hitters in the batting order.
“I know if I don’t get the job done they’ll be right behind me to get it done,” Friudenberg said. “It will help take some pressure off me. I think they’ll want to pitch to me because they fear the people behind me too, so it will be great.”
Wallace brings a lot of punch to Baylor’s lineup after hitting .333 with 20 doubles, seven homers and 52 RBIs at Auburn last season.
“It’s a gift to bring her in and have a catcher of her caliber,” Moore said. “She and Gia love working together. A lot of times you see a great catcher who doesn’t swing the bat particularly well. But she’s a great catcher and a great hitter. She hit three-hole for Auburn last year and led in many categories. The kid’s just a winner.”
McGlaun is looking for more consistency at the plate after hitting .251 with 11 homers and 35 RBIs as a freshman last year. Though she will primarily pitch and play designated hitter, McGlaun will also log some time at first base behind Friudenberg.
“McGlaun, for a couple of reasons, is deserving of more playing time other than just being a DH,” Moore said. “That keeps you kind of motivated and she’s worked extremely hard and has fairly leveled the difference between the two without consideration of experience. To prepare also for the future and get her better there, she’ll be our starting first baseman after Friudenberg’s gone.”
Caitlin Charlton will step in for Cargill at third base after hitting .167 last season while Taylor Ellis is back at shortstop after hitting .256 last season.
Moore wants to get some speed toward the bottom of the order with rightfielder Maddison Kettler returning and Dawson stepping in at second base. Kettler hit .339 with 11 stolen bases and 20 RBIs for the Lady Bears as a freshman last year while Dawson hit .310 with eight stolen bases as a freshman at LSU.
Moore is excited about the potential of Dawson, a former Louisiana high school player of the year at Parkview Baptist in Baton Rouge.
“She has more range than any second baseman I’ve ever coached,” Moore said. “She has good speed. She could have probably very well chosen track but she loves softball. She’s got some special stuff, so we’re excited to have her at second base.”
The Lady Bears know it will be difficult to unseat powerful Oklahoma as the Big 12 champion. But Baylor plays the three-game series against the Sooners at Getterman on March 29-31, and hopes that winning it would lead to a conference championship and a high NCAA tournament seed in May.
“They’ll be good, they’ve got the best pitching in the country,” Moore said. “I have to tip my hat to (Oklahoma coach) Patty Gasso and what she does. She doesn’t miss a beat. I love playing them. They make us better and they prepare us for postseason.”