Surrounded by beaches, crystal blue water and abundant sunshine, the Baylor softball team is looking forward to opening the season Thursday in the College Challenge in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
But the exotic location isn’t just an excuse to experience a little piece of paradise.
Baylor coach Glenn Moore will begin to find out a lot about his team that’s become a bit of a mystery due to injuries to key players.
Moore announced on Tuesday that ace Gia Rodoni will redshirt this season and return for her senior year in 2020 as she recovers from knee surgery last fall. Previously, Moore said that all-Big 12 outfielder Kyla Walker is redshirting this season due to hip surgery and will also return next season.
A bevy of newcomers will need to make a major impact as the No 18 Lady Bears shoot for their ninth straight NCAA tournament berth.
“I look for this to be one of the teams that I do a lot of juggling around with early on to find the right mix,” Moore said. “We have a ton of anxious, excited and fairly talented freshmen coming in here. So we’ve just got to get a few games under our belt and see how the kids respond to it. Mid-March is my goal to have a good idea of where we are and what we’re best at.”
The Lady Bears will face No. 19 South Carolina in Thursday’s opener at 12:30 p.m. followed by BYU at 3 p.m. Baylor will play North Carolina at 3 p.m. Friday before concluding the tournament Sunday against Liberty at noon and No. 3 Washington at 6 p.m.
Though the Lady Bears will have a lot of new faces in the lineup, junior shortstop Taylor Ellis believes they’ll learn quickly and continue to build the program’s strong softball tradition.
“That’s definitely the elephant in the room,” Ellis said. “But no one’s going to notice on opening day that we have newcomers at all. I think they’re growing up very, very fast, and that’s what we need from them. We’re very excited.”
After going 41-16 over the last two seasons, Rodoni is one of the best pitchers in the Big 12 when healthy. While there’s no way Baylor can replace her experience, Moore believes his pitching staff has the depth to ride out the season without her.
“You certainly don’t want to lose your ace,” Moore said. “So that’s a huge blow to our program. But that’s not going to dictate where this team goes completely. Fortunately for this team, we have one of the deepest pitching staffs we’ve had in quite a few years with great potential. We just have to develop that bullpen a little quicker without having her arm to rely on.”
With Rodoni out of the picture, Baylor will need hard-throwing sophomore right-hander Sidney Holman to lead the pitching staff.
The former Belton High School star was named Southland Conference pitcher in 2017 after going 21-7 with a 1.85 ERA and 165 strikeouts at Abilene Christian. Holman transferred to Temple College last year, but didn’t play.
“You don’t get 70 to 71-mile pitchers,” Moore said. “She still has to be polished and get an off-speed. She’s got a nasty drop, and that’s the most dangerous pitch in the sport. It’s hard to lift a 70-mph drop out of the ballpark. So she can be special, but now she has to grow and be special quicker than we anticipated.”
Moore expects Regan Green to deliver a stronger senior year after finishing 12-5 with a 2.89 ERA last season. Three-time all-state lefthander Madison Lindsey from Kingwood High School will also be a factor while outfielder Goose McGlaun and third baseman Kassidy Krupit could also pitch if needed.
“I don’t know what her (Green’s) ceiling is, but she’s capable of winning some games for us for sure,” Moore said. “I think she’s certainly a better pitcher than she was a year ago. We’ve got a lefty with Madison Lindsey that has some good stuff. She has good movement, locates well. She doesn’t have overpowering speed, but is certainly good at lefty-lefty matchups.”
Losing Walker for the season is a big blow after she hit over .400 in each of her first three seasons. But Maddison Kettler has been cleared to play following an arm injury, and hopes to bounce back from hitting .222 last season following a .339 freshman season in 2017.
Baylor will likely start McGlaun in left field, freshman Lou Gilbert in center field and Kettler in right field, while freshman Ana Watson and sophomore Alyssa Avalos will add outfield depth.
McGlaun will bat in the middle of Baylor’s order after a big freshman year in which she hit .323 with a team-high 14 homers and 51 RBIs. After playing first and third base last season, Moore believes McGlaun will have no problem transitioning to the outfield.
“I think Goose is our best outfielder,” Moore said. “She has great home to first speed, she gets a great jump on the ball, she’s got all the tools. She’ll have the best arm out there. I’m certainly very confident in her playing in left or right field.”
Gilbert is one of the top players in Baylor’s freshman class after hitting .559 with 91 stolen bases during her high school career at Kansas City Staley. It’s a big challenge stepping in for All-American centerfielder Jessie Scroggins, but Moore believes Gilbert can handle it.
“She’s a five-tool player,” Moore said. “Probably her weakest area would be swinging away, but she’s a very, very intelligent short-game player and can also power slap and has good speed. She’s a prototypical Baylor short-game player and plays with a lot of confidence. She practices at 100 percent and just every day tries to get better.”
Watson is a freshman from Reicher while Avalos was used primarily as a pinch runner as a freshman last year as she scored 15 runs and stole four bases.
“She (Watson) is a local kid that really impressed us in the fall, more so than we anticipated,” Moore said. “Alyssa Avalos is a pretty good outfielder and not bad offensively. She’s kind of a depth player, but she could certainly play in that position if we needed her to. I would feel confident. She played at a high-level of travel ball, and her game has developed a good bit in the offseason.”
With slugger Shelby Friudenberg gone after rewriting Baylor’s record book with her prodigious power numbers, Hannah Thompson is ready to step in at first base. She played catcher and designated hitter last year and showed some power as she hit .259 with three homers and 13 RBIs.
“In order for Goose to play in left field, Hannah Thompson has to be pretty solid at first base,” Moore said. “She’s a great hitter and I would predict her to be at No. 5 in the lineup. She had five or six hits in the regional last year, really swung the bat well with a home run.”
Baylor’s most renowned freshman is Krupit, a high school All-American from Suwanee, Ga., who was recently selected for the USA Softball Junior Women’s National Training Team. Krupit will play third base and hit in the middle of Baylor’s order.
“I would probably say Goose would be third (in the batting order) and Krupit fourth,” Moore said. “Krupit is a scary hitter. Having the USA National Team on her resume will give her some quick respect, and I think that will help Goose out as well.”
The Lady Bears have some much needed experience returning in the middle infield with Nicky Dawson at second base and Ellis at shortstop. Dawson is Baylor’s top returning hitter after posting a .347 batting average as a sophomore while the versatile Ellis hit .260 with two homers and 26 RBIs as a sophomore last season.
Ellis can also play catcher if needed but freshman Tyler Trott will likely see most of the time behind the plate. Trott was an Oklahoma all-state player at Little Axe High School who is outstanding defensively.
“Tyler has a real good arm,” Moore said. “It’s probably the second best we’ve had in the last few years, next to Clare Hosack. Having said that, Hannah Thompson will see a good bit of time behind the plate. And then you have Casey Shell, a freshman that has all the tools defensively, but has to bring the offensive side of things further along.”
The Lady Bears will be very much a work in progress and will certainly be tested in Puerto Vallarta against nationally ranked teams like South Carolina and Washington.
But regardless of the obstacles they’ve had to overcome throughout the years, the Lady Bears have usually found enough answers to make the NCAA tournament and shoot for the Women’s College World Series. Moore expects this team to be no different.
“I’ve said it a few times, we’re going to have to get our nose bloodied a little bit and see how we respond because we’re going to have some youth,” Moore said. “It’s a long season. They’ve got to sink or swim.”