By: Ryan Schadewald, sports information assistant
February 20, 2014
BLUFFTON, Ohio - The 2014 Bluffton University softball team looks to take advantage of the experience they bring back after a third place finish in the Heartland Conference a season ago. The Beavers return seven starters from that campaign, including both starting pitchers. “We look at our squad size as an advantage because the players get more 1-on-1 work and more individual time with the coaches,” Head Coach Heather Bruder stated. This small roster also means that all 13 women will have to play a significant role for the team to be successful in 2014.
Bluffton was picked third in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference preseason poll, behind the defending regular season champion Manchester Spartans and the Anderson University Ravens, who won the conference tournament a year ago and went on to be the first HCAC team in the history of the conference to qualify for the Division III Women’s College World Series. “It’s nice when the people in your conference respect you and what you have done as a program to put us in the top three,” Coach Bruder responded when asked about the poll.
When looking at the Beavers' returnees, the first glance goes to junior captains Jessica Kuzara (Flat Rock, Mich./Huron) and Ariana Muffo (New Athens, Ill./New Athens). In her first season behind the plate for the Beavers, Muffo earned First Team All-HCAC honors as a sophomore. She hit .400 at the dish, while doing a stellar job calling games from behind it. Her .400 batting average was third in the HCAC in 2013 and her .454 on-base percentage was fourth. She finished with 29 RBI, 10 doubles, two home runs and scored 24 runs. Muffo will be a key component of Bluffton’s push for an eighth straight Heartland Conference tournament bid in 2014. Kuzara looks to get starts in the infield, whether it be at third base or behind the plate this season. She hit .264, slamming four dingers with 23 RBI, 21 runs scored and eight doubles during her sophomore campaign.
Senior Shelby Erford (Paulding) looks to solidify the middle of the infield in her senior season and improve on her Second Team All-HCAC performance from last year. The switch-hitting shortstop batted .328 and scored 35 runs on 40 hits while stealing eight bases. Another key member of the infield will be junior first baseman Brittany Baker (Springboro). Baker was Honorable Mention All-HCAC last year, hitting .276 with four homers, 17 RBI and 12 doubles. Baker’s batting average improved by almost 60 points from her freshman to sophomore seasons and she continues to work on that part of her game.
Sophomore Ashley Knippen (Wapakoneta) will split time between the infield and the outfield. The two-sport standout earned Second Team All-HCAC honors as a freshman, batting .444 while putting down five sacrifice hits, both bests in the HCAC last season. She is also stellar in the field, boasting a .988 fielding percentage while committing just one error in 2013. Junior Jo Bondra (Highland Heights/Mayfield) gives the Beavers another two-sport athlete who can play at first or in the outfield. Freshman Marissa Wilson (Farmersville/Valley View) is also looking to earn a starting spot in the middle of the infield while making an immediate impact in the Beaver program.
The outfield will have experience returning, but it will also have fresh blood this season. Senior captain Chelsea Weitz (Dayton/Carroll) is ready to lead the outfield in her final season wearing the purple and grey. Sophomore transfer Katie Musgrave (Doylestown/Chippewa) also looks to be a fixture in the outfield when opening day rolls around for the Beavers. “Musgrave is very instinctive in the outfield and looks to help our defense improve,” Coach Bruder said of her incoming player.
The pitching staff returns three ladies who did all the pitching last year. The two starters, senior captain Kayla Owens (Cincinnati/McAuley) and junior Chloe Shell (Covington), are a lethal combination in the circle. Owens finished last year 7-7 with a 3.53 ERA and 57 strikeouts, pitching four complete games over a total of 79.1 innings. Shell tossed 108.1 innings, including nine complete games. She put together an 8-9 record and a 4.39 ERA. Emily Kolezynski (Strongsville) will be who the Beavers call on in the late frames. In 20 appearances (one start) during 2013, Kolezynski went 2-3 with a 4.43 ERA in 42.2 innings. Freshman Emily Scupholm (Cuyahoga Falls/Our Lady of the Elms) gives the Beavers another weapon on the hill in her first season at Bluffton.
Some of the keys to success, according to Coach Bruder, are taking advantage of their strengths, which include hitting the ball. The word consistency came up often when discussing the season with Bruder. “Being consistent at the plate is a must for us and the pitching has to be consistent from start to finish,” Bruder said. With only 13 girls, the Beavers also need to stay healthy as they are only a couple injuries away from ‘disaster’ according to Bruder.
The primary objective this season is for all 13 girls to get better each game. “We can’t look at just four or five players to get the job done,” Bruder said. The Beavers would also like to get into the double-digit win category in conference play, as they went 9-5 in HCAC play last year after three straight 11-5 seasons.
The Beavers will kick off action at the Gene Cusic Classic in Fort Myers, Florida, on Monday, March 3 when they take on Cedar Crest College at 9 a.m. and Clark University at 1 p.m. Following their 10 games in Florida, the Beavers play four more on the road before the home opener at Bluffton University on Tuesday, March 18, against Alma College. Bluffton blazes into HCAC play on Saturday, March 22, at Transylvania.