Jan. 30, 2014
As Mark Montgomery enters his second season at the helm of the Louisiana Tech softball program, he does so with high hopes and expectations.
With nine newcomers on the 18-person roster, Montgomery knows that a lot of his team's success in 2014 will depend on student-athletes who have never worn a LA Tech jersey before.
After recording a winning record last season on its way to the program's highest seed ever in the Western Athletic Conference Tournament (No. 3), the Lady Techsters had a very solid, even impressive, campaign under the new coaching regime.
With year No. 2 approaching, Montgomery and Co. are preparing to take another step forward despite some key losses. Gone are graduating seniors Janna Frandrup, Mel Goff, Amanda Krueger, Dacia Hale, Michelle Jones and Meghan Knowles who combined for 282 starts.
"This is not a typical year No. 2," Montgomery said. "Unfortunately, we lost six talented, starting seniors. So not only are we young and inexperienced, but we are so in all positions, even with our backups. However everyone is working hard, and I do believe the talent is in place.
"Also in softball you recruit almost two years out, so our first all-inclusive recruiting class doesn't arrive until next season. However, there is one area I feel we have made great strides. We have accumulated some depth at every position, and I feel as though we have several options to make our line-up the best that it can be."
In addition to nine new faces - freshmen Tori Charters, Amanda Gray, Kaitlyn Williams, Taylor Penn, Pauline Tufi and Natalie Moran; junior college transfer Bianca Duran; and transfers Lindsey Neyland and Lexi Callan - the Lady Techsters return nine players from last year.
Like the rest of the Louisiana Tech athletic programs, the Lady Techster softball team will play its inaugural season as a member of Conference USA.
"Conference USA is a very strong league from top to bottom," Montgomery said. "It sent four teams to the NCAA tournament last year and three of those are returning. It will certainly mean that we have to be prepared for great competition each weekend and will need to play well all three games in a conference series. There really will be no games off."
Louisiana Tech is poised to have its most talented and deepest pitching staff since its run to the 2008 Western Athletic Conference Tournament championship and NCAA Tournament appearance six years ago.
"This should be the real strength of our team," Montgomery said. "All three of our pitchers are very talented and they complement each other very well. I feel that you will see at least two, if not all three, in every game, giving us our best chance to win.
"I know a great coach who once said `I'd rather have great pitching and an average team, than average pitching and a great team.' Optimistically, our pitching can be remarkable."
Cross, who was named the WAC Freshman of the Year last season, posted a 6-8 record in the circle with a 3.06 earned run average making 19 starts and appearing in 26 games. Despite some rookie struggles at times in the circle, Cross recorded some masterful performances, including handing New Mexico State its only home loss of conference play. She also pitched two complete-game shutouts against NCAA participant Northwestern State.
"Anna should be both our starting shortstop, as well as our closer," Montgomery said. "That is really a unique role defensively, but with great range and power and a 65 to 67 mile per hour fastball, she excels at both. So we will be flexible to maximize her talent."
Duran was named the Region 9 Pitcher and Player of the Year last season at Western Nebraska Community College where she recorded a 36-3 record with a 1.11 earned run average. She registered 181 strikeouts and only 37 walks in 232.2 innings of work. "Bianca is a great pitcher," Montgomery said. "She will start most games in the circle. She has great command over a variety of pitches. She is just a great leader and competitor. `B' demands to win."
Tufi was the three-time Gatorade Player of the Year in the state of Alaska while playing at West Anchorage High School. As a senior she was 9-5 with a 1.61 earned run average, recording 140 strikeouts in 87 innings.
"I look for Pauline to be a mainstay in our pitching rotation, primarily in the role of middle relief," Montgomery said. "This will allow her time to continue to develop while still maximizing her strengths."
Last season Montgomery found himself in a bind as now junior Alayna Kipp was the only true catcher on the roster. Thus, when Kipp had injury issues during the season, Montgomery was forced to try both Lowe and Winter behind the plate. Although the two young ladies battled admirably to fill in for Kipp, it simply wasn't the same.
Montgomery remedied the problem through recruiting as this season the Lady Techsters will boast four true catchers on the roster as Kipp will be joined by freshmen Natalie Moran and Amanda Gray and sophomore transfer Lexi Callan.
After undergoing arthroscopic surgery on both knees during the offseason, Kipp returns to give Louisiana Tech the experience it needs behind the plate. During her sophomore campaign, Kipp - sister of senior infielder Erin Kipp - batted .267 with two home runs and 16 RBI despite not being anywhere close to healthy.
"Alayna battled knee injuries all last year and still caught over 75 percent of our innings," Montgomery said. "She is blessed with quickness and power. So with two successful off-season surgeries, look for Alayna to have that breakout year both at the plate and behind it."
Callan comes to Ruston after spending her freshman season at Stephen F. Austin. During her rookie campaign in Nacogdoches, Texas, Callan saw action in 27 games, making 20 starts while recording seven hits and scoring four runs. She was an all-district and all-state honoree during her prep career at Canton High School.
"Lexi is by far one of our strongest athletes," Montgomery said. "She will provide much needed depth at the catcher position, and as her hitting continues to develop, I would expect some offensive power off the bench."
Moran signed with LA Tech out of South Hills High School in California where she helped lead the Huskies to the 2011 CIF-Southern Section Division 3 championship finals. During her high school career she batted .385 with a .542 slugging percentage. She was named first team all-Sierra League and to the San Gabriel Valley South all-star team. She is a four-time scholar athlete.
"With Alayna's surgery this fall, Natalie earned a lot of repetitions behind the plate," Montgomery said. "That allowed her to speed up the learning curve at that position. With her tremendous work ethic, I expect her to not only provide depth at the catcher position, but to push for playing time."
Gray will redshirt this season while recovering from an arm injury. She chose the Lady Techsters after lettering four years at Lovejoy High School in Texas where she batted .460 with nine home runs and 62 RBI as a senior. She was a three-time all-district selection and was named to the Texas Girls Coaches Association Class 3A all-state team in 2012 and the Texas Sports Writers Association all-state team in 2013.
"Redshirting this season due to an arm injury, Amanda has been invaluable in helping get the team prepared," Montgomery said. "She will continue to learn the requirements for being a catcher at the Division I level, and she will be ready to step into that role next season."
Louisiana Tech's infield will have plenty of depth as nine different players could see time at any of the four positions this season as the Lady Techsters graduated three senior starters off of last year's team.
Kipp, who signed with Tech as a pitcher, has made the transition from the circle due to arm issues which prevented her from playing in the field or pitching the majority of last season. While serving as the Lady Techsters designated player during her junior year, she was named second team all-WAC, second team all-state and second team all-Central Region by the National Fastpitch Coaches Association. She batted .349 with 14 doubles, four home runs, 28 runs scored and 22 RBI.
"Erin struggled with an arm injury that eliminated her from anymore pitching last season," Montgomery said. "So she just decided to become an all-conference performer as a designated player as well as an Academic All-American. This year I expect to see that same great performance as both a DP and at first base."
When she is not in the circle, Duran will also see time at first base for the Lady Techsters as Montgomery knows he must keep the juniors bat in the lineup. During her two year career at Western Nebraska Community College, she set program single season records for batting average (.545), home runs (23), doubles (29) and hits (110). She is also the program career home run leader with 40.
"Bianca surprised us with her defensive skills this fall," Montgomery said. "Her hitting is exceptional so she will be on the field somewhere even when she isn't in the circle."
Tufi could also see time at first base. Like Duran, Tufi possesses the offensive skill set that Montgomery must keep in the heart of the order for Louisiana Tech to be successful. The Anchorage, Alaska native was the three-time Gatorade Player of the Year in the state of Alaska as well as a four-time all-region and all-state selection. As a senior, she registered almost unbelievable offensive numbers, batting .842 with six home runs, 36 RBI and a 1.474 slugging percentage.
"Pauline - our "Big Alaskan" - is such an amazing athlete and is so strong," Montgomery said. "I look for her to drive in runs with tons extra base hits and to fill in defensively wherever needed in order to keep her bat in the lineup." With the loss to two-year starter Amanda Krueger to graduation, second base is another infield position that is up for grabs entering 2014.
Lowe has taken significant strides forward after an injury-plagued freshman campaign that saw her struggle with the transition to the collegiate level. The Junction City, Arkansas native saw action in only 14 games, which included some emergency work at catcher. She saw only five plate appearances before missing the final two-thirds of the season with an injury.
"Last season Courtney was a true utility player for the squad, playing catcher, third base and shortstop before breaking her hand," Montgomery said. "This year, after an amazing summer of hard work, look for Courtney to compete for time at both middle infield spots for the team."
Neyland, an Evangel Christian Academy product, saw action in 34 games at UCF during her freshman season where she scored eight runs and recorded four stolen bases. During her prep days in Shreveport, Neyland helped lead the Eagles to three stright state championship titles while being named all-district at shortstop six straight years. She was named the district MVP as a junior when she batted .444 with 44 runs and 25 stolen bases and was as three-time all-state selection.
"Lindsey is a gifted athlete with speed and power," Montgomery said. "She will compete at the middle infield spots and provide us with match-up possibilities against all types of pitching."
Penn signed with LA Tech out of Forney High School in Texas where she helped lead the Jackrabbits to four straight district titles and the Texas Class 4A state title game as a sophomore. As a senior, she batted .405 with 12 doubles and 38 RBI. She was a four-time all-district selection and was named third team all-area by the Dallas Morning News as a junior when she batted .368 with 19 extra base hits.
"Taylor is going to really challenge for playing time this season," Montgomery said. "She has strong defensive skills that continue to get better and her swing can be as good as anyone on the team. As she continues to develop, look out."
Williams prepped at Herbert Hoover High School in California. While playing shortstop for the Tornadoes, she batted .528 with eight doubles, four home runs and 27 RBI as a senior, one year after batting .478 with 15 extra base hits and 25 RBI. The two-time team MVP was named first team all-Pacific League her final three years as well as first team all-rea.
"Kaitlyn is such a smooth-fielding infielder," Montgomery said. "She brings us quality depth defensively and will allow us to maximize our game strategies."
Although departed senior Janna Frandrup played the majority at third base last year, junior Hailey Winter has plenty of experience at the hot corner through her first two years in college. Winter, who is by far and away the best defensive third baseman on the team, made 37 starts at third base as a freshman. At the plate Winter hasn't received a lot of opportunities in her first two years but showed signs this past fall of making great strides.
"Hailey is a driving force behind our team," Montgomery said. "She truly loves the game and is the player that everyone loves to be around. Hailey's leadership might end up to be one of our team's greatest strengths."
Despite the fact that all signs point to Winter being a staple at third base, Tufi and Lowe could also see some playing time at the hot corner during the season.
Tech's only returning starter in the infield is Anna Cross, who made 30 starts at shortstop during her rookie season. When Cross isn't in the circle for the Lady Techsters she will be a LA Tech's starting shortstop while Lowe (see second base) and Williams (see second base) could also see some playing time.
The strong-armed Cross showed great range at shortstop last year while also batting .323 with nine doubles, six home runs, 30 runs scored and 29 RBI. She also led Tech with 20 stolen bases in 22 attempts.
"Anna should start at shortstop where she excelled her freshman season," Montgomery said. "We will move her to the closer's role at the end of games. She has a great combination of power and speed which is what makes her stand out."
Louisiana Tech has plenty of experience returning in the outfield despite graduating starting centerfielder Dacia Hale and starting right fielder Mel Goff.
Montgomery has the luxury of five true outfielders on the roster as well as a couple of utility players that could see some time.
Senior Katelynn Hill returns to the field this year after missing the entire 2013 season while recovering from shoulder surgery. Hill had a productive sophomore season when she batted .252 with six doubles, seven home runs and 19 RBI. She started that year with a bang when she hit home runs in each of the first three games of the season, including twice against nationally ranked Michigan.
"One of two seniors on the team, Katelynn is an amazing leader in the outfield," Montgomery said. "She plays with passion and dedication and will push our team to reach its potential."
Junior Janine Godwin has seen action in 83 games during her career, making 25 starts in the outfield. During her first two seasons, Godwin has been used mostly in pinch running roles as well as late game defensive substitutions although she has collected 10 hits and scored 17 runs.
"Janine is a lefty hitter and arguably our best defensive outfielder," Montgomery said. "She gives us both depth and match-up opportunities in every game."
Sophomore Kristen Miles earned honorable mention all-state honors and second team all-WAC accolades by CollegeSportsMadness.com after starting 52 games in left field her rookie season in college. Miles batted .331 with 52 hits while scoring 37 runs and recording 16 stolen bases. Defensively, Miles didn't commit an error in 73 chances all season.
"Kristen blossomed into an amazing college outfielder last year," Montgomery said. "I look for Kristen to take another step forward and improve her consistency as she becomes an offensive leader for this team."
Sophomore Katelynn Cook returns for her second season at Tech after seeing action in 29 games last year, making two starts in the outfield. Cook saw the majority of her action as a pinch runner and in late-game defensive situations while she recorded two hits, two RBI and four runs in a limited number of offensive opportunities.
"Katelynn made several great defensive plays for us last year and should do the same this year," Montgomery said. "She is still working on developing some power at the plate, but she provides us so much depth and flexibility with our outfield."
Freshman Tori Charters begins her first season at Louisiana Tech and could see significant time in the Lady Techster outfield. Charters set numerous offensive records during her prep career at Keller High School in Texas where she led the Indians to a 30-6 record as a senior. She also spent July playing for the national junior team for Softball Canada in the 2013 ISF X Junior Women's World Championships in Ontario.
"Tori maybe the fastest athlete I have ever had play for me," Montgomery said. "She is being asked to play a new outfield position, but is continuing to improve daily. With her defense solidified and her offensive weaponry becoming fine-tuned, I expect her to be a major asset for us this year."