USM softball ready for season's start

USM softball ready for season's start
Wendy Hogue/Photo credit: WDAM
Wendy Hogue/Photo credit: WDAM

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - For University of Southern Mississippi softball coach Wendy Hogue, if you take care of the details, the big picture takes care of itself.

"I always say, if you keep one foot in front of the other and stay focused, you're going to get where you're going," Hogue said.

That philosophy has served Hogue well on the diamond, first at William Carey University, where she built the Lady Crusaders into a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics power and now at USM, where she guided the 2016 Lady Eagles to a 30-win season in just her second year at the helm.

But while Hogue said she is excited about the upcoming season, she wants her players to put their energy into the immediate, improving inning by inning, game by game.

"Our goal is to be better today than we were yesterday," Hogue said. "If we can do that, and reach some milestones that we have laid out, then those (other) goals, they're all going to come into play. They're going to be attained."

USM opens at McNeese State University at 6 p.m. Thursday before continuing on for a weekend round robin in Lafayette, Louisiana.

"It's going to be a test right off for our pitching staff in shutting down this powerful-hitting team," Hogue said.

The Lady Eagles will face Ball State University at 12:30 p.m. Friday, take on Iowa State University (11:30 a.m.) and Ball State (7 p.m.) Saturday and then meet host University of Louisiana-Lafayette in a Sunday doubleheader starting at 1:30 p.m.

"We're going to be tested," Hogue said. "Our stamina is going to be tested, the mental side of it is going to be tested along with, 'OK, what do we have?'"

Last spring, the Lady Eagles (30-28) turned in the most winning season since 2004, sweeping the final Conference USA series to tie for the C-USA West Division championship and clinch a spot in the conference tournament.

USM split four games in Denton, Texas, falling in the semifinals.

"You can always get better, but I would consider the (2016) season a success," Hogue said.

And the Lady Eagles hope to build on that success with a blend of veterans and newcomers, including a trio of Division I transfers who could contribute right away.

Senior Lauren Holifield, C-USA Newcomer of Year, returns at shortstop after hitting .339 with 13 home runs and 40 RBIs. Senior Tori Dew returns at first base after hitting .324 with three home runs and 23 RBIs, while senior Bailey Stokes and sophomore Samantha Papp return after splitting duties at catcher last year.

"I think they'll be two of the best catchers in the conference," Hogue said.

The infield is expected to get a boost from sophomore Chase Nelson, a transfer from the University of Missouri.

"She's really gonna help us out," Hogue said. "She'll probably be at the top of the lineup for us. She's a great addition. Lefty, power, runs extremely well, great defensive player, just one of those five-tool kids that you're just excited to have in your program."

Senior Rachel Johnson (.255, 28 runs scored) returns in center field, while the corner outfield spots could see a mix of players, including junior Samantha Reynolds (.206) and junior Ciarra Cherry of Petal, who transferred from UL-Lafayette.

"She had to sit out last year, but is just a phenomenal athlete, very gifted, talent-wise," Hogue said. "She's still working through some things, trying to learn those outfield positions, but I know she can help us in the lineup."

USM returns its top three pitchers, including second-team All-C-USA selection junior Samantha Robles (41 appearances, 19-11, 2.92 ERA, three saves).

"She'll kind of lead the charge in the circle," Hogue said.

Also back are Danielle Block (30 appearances, 8-10, 4.05 ERA) and Jillian Johnson (25 appearances, 3-6, 4.06 ERA, one save).

Three newcomers may work into the mix as well, including University of Arkansas sophomore transfer Peyton Carter, Shelton State Community College junior transfer Kim Crowson and freshman Jade Lewis from Mont Belvieu.

"Last year, we ran out of gas at the conference tournament, but that's not going to happen this year," Hogue said. "We may get injured, we may run out of outs, we may run out of opportunities, but I can promise you, we are not going to run out of gas because we've got depth. We've got able bodies, we've got arms, we've got people who can run, catch, throw. There's no excuse to run out of gas. That would be lack of preparation on my part."

Hogue said she and the Lady Eagles are ready to get the season started.

"We're really excited about the depth we have this year and the leadership," Hogue said. "Yes, it's important to have a great start, but maybe what the outside views as a great start is not necessarily what we are focusing on as a team. I know, everybody wants to win, and bottom line, winning feels a lot better than losing. But if we'll just get out there and compete, every pitch, every inning, every game, get back up when we get knocked down, that's what we want."

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