Beavers pegged to finish second in Heartland Conference
February 19, 2013
By: Evan Skilliter, sports information assistant
BLUFFTON, Ohio - A youthful Bluffton University Softball Team will be eying the top spot in the conference in 2013 as the squad, loaded with returners and experience, looks to improve on last season's second place finish in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference. In 2012, the Beavers went 26-17 overall with an 11-5 mark in the conference, finishing behind Anderson University.
Heather Bruder returns to the helm for her seventh season as head coach of the softball team. In her six seasons at Bluffton, Bruder has solidified herself as a top coach in Bluffton history with a .564 win percentage (132-102), including a regular season conference championship in 2008, and a school-record 30 wins in 2009. Assisting Bruder will be first-year graduate assistant Tiffany Buckmaster, a 2011 Bluffton graduate and four-year letterwinner for Bruder.
Shelby Wade (Delaware/Buckeye Valley) will be the lone senior on the team this season. Wade is an outfielder who split time in right and center field last season. Always a threat on the basepaths, Wade hit .317 in her junior season with four doubles, 12 runs scored and eight runs batted in, while leading the Beavers with 13 steals on just 15 attempts. She was also named Heartland Conference Hitter of the Week following a 6-of-8 afternoon at rival Defiance College last season. "Shelby is a fantastic person and a born leader," said Bruder. "You always want great things to happen to great people, and I hope she has an outstanding year."
The Beavers return three versatile pitching performers from the 2012 squad. Sophomore Chloe Shell (Covington) finished last year with a 2.14 ERA and a 10-5 record. Shell was second on the team with 101.1 innings pitched and 43 strikeouts. "Chloe is having an outstanding off-season," said Bruder. "She's a great kid and has the mental strength and toughness you need in the collegiate circle." Shell led the HCAC in fewest walks per game, allowing less than one free pass for every 14 innings on the rubber.
Junior Kayla Owens (Cincinnati/McAuley) led the team with a 1.55 ERA in 40.2 innings pitched, finishing with a 4-3 record, two saves and 24 strikeouts. Owens has the stuff to make batters look foolish like she did as a freshman when she tossed a no-hitter against Beloit College in Florida.
Rounding out Bluffton's experienced trio of hurlers is sophomore Emily Kolezynski (Strongsville) who saw action in five games last season, earning a win at rival Defiance College after tossing four innings of one-earned run ball. She finished the season with a 4.67 ERA in nine innings of relief.
Katie Clark (New Palestine, Ind.) returns after an outstanding freshman season when she finished second in the Heartland Conference in batting average (.430), fourth in RBI (30), and fifth in home runs (6). Clark will see time in the outfield when she is not the DP. Fellow sophomore Jessica Kuzara (Flat Rock, Mich./Huron), who moved into the starting linup midway through 2012, will be another key piece of the Beaver offense after finishing last season with a .311 average at the plate, 12 runs scored and eight RBI.
Juniors Natalie Nikatas (Jeffersonvile Ind.), Chelsea Weitz (Dayton/Carroll) and Shelby Erford (Paulding) will also play key roles in Bluffton's 2013 success, according to Bruder. Erford, who hit .327 with five dingers and 22 RBI as a freshman, has been a two-year starter at shortstop.
The Beavers were recently picked second in the HCAC pre-season coaches poll, behind last year's conference champion Anderson. Behind the Beavers in the poll, in order, are Manchester, Transylvania, Defiance, Rose-Hulman, Franklin, Hanover and Mount St. Joseph.
"The exciting thing is that we're collectively getting better and better as a conference," said Bruder. "I anticipate we'll do some great things with revamped coaching staffs, new mentality, and the kids we are bringing in. Our conference is getting stronger and hats off to the coaches for their recruiting and retention efforts."
The Beavers have not won a conference title since 2008 when they shared it with Rose-Hulman. Bruder said the team needs to keep 'what it takes to win' in perspective. "This year we've focused on the process. What will it take as a team to get there?" said Bruder. "Last year we hit .302 as a team and we finished second. Cleary that's not good enough. We'll also have to knock down our errors and be consistent both defensively and at the plate."
"I think we've got a great group of young women who, for the first time in a long time, believe in each other and believe that hard work will pay off in the long run. As a coach, that is something, to a degree, that you can't instill. You say certain things, but you need players to buy in. Words are words until you give them meaning, and I think this year those words have meaning. It's been exciting."
The Beavers will take their annual trip to the Rebel Spring Games in Kissimmee, Florida, to play 10 games from March 3 to March 7, kicking the season off against Illinois College at 9 a.m. on Sunday, March 3. The home opener is slated for March 12 against Adrian at 3:30 p.m., while the conference opener will be Saturday, March 23, at home versus Transylvania at 2 p.m.