To make the 2015 softball season the most successful one during the University of South Dakota’s time as an NCAA Division I program, the Coyotes will have to set that tone as road warriors.
Beginning Friday in Nashville, Tennessee, the USD women will try to improve on back-to-back 29-win seasons this campaign when they take the field against Ball State at 1:30 p.m. in the first of four games at the Music City Classic.
USD follow that game up with contests Saturday against Georgetown (9 a.m.) and the hosts Belmont (2 p.m.) and wrap the weekend’s action Sunday at 11 a.m. vs. Missouri-Kansas City.
This weekend begins a two-month road odyssey as the USD women are scheduled to make trips to Florida twice Iowa, Kansas, and Texas before Summit League play begins. They still won’t play their first game at home until April 11 when they host a doubleheader against league foes Fort Wayne.
Mix in some more trips to Ames and Omaha, along with an excursion to Grand Forks and the Coyotes will play all but 11 of their 55 scheduled games in the warm embrace of Vermillion.
But according to eighth-year head coach Amy Klyse and the players this could be the year the Coyotes take that next big step toward prominence.
Biggest by league coaches this preseason to finish third – beat North Dakota State and IUPUI - in the Summit, a break here and there, a quickly adjusted new infield and a stable of solid arms in the bullpen could push them forward a bit more and maybe to the program’s first ever NCAA Division I National Tournament appearance.
WHERE ARE THEY AT?
Last season the Coyotes finished 29-22 overall, 9-8 in Summit League action, while only going 4-5 on its paltry home schedule. They ultimately went 1-2 in the league tournament in Fargo, dropping two straight after an opening win against South Dakota State.
USD was denied a 30th win when it saw the season end with an 11-8 loss to the host and eventual champion North Dakota State Bison.
Now, the Coyotes expect more from themselves in year four as a Summit member after three years and a combined 33-27 record.
“Through the eight years we have transitioned from Division II to Division I it’s really hard to label (where they are at),” Klyse said. “We have two different categories. As a program overall, as a staff we are great in working well together and that filters down to the kids. I think we are at a place where we can compete for a conference championship and that’s a great place to be.
“We have gotten to the point where on any given day we can beat any team we can play. If we are on our ‘A’ game we can beat any team we play that’s on our schedule.”
The Coyotes are seeing that ideology bear fruit especially after a fall ball win over the Cornhuskers.
“It’s not anymore that we think we can, we have gone out and actually have done it,” Klyse said. “Our thought process is that it’s expecting to happen all the time. We obviously have to show up and work hard every day. We believe when we wake up and go to play these Top 25 teams we can compete with them. Consistently beating those teams and winning our conference championship would be great and is certainly something we can do.”
Klyse knows that to take the next step the Coyotes will have to replace essentially their entire infield, but the newer players are showing their mettle.
Daly is also happy with the play of the new infielders backing up the ladies manning the circle.
“Our pitchers are seeing how hard our infielders are working and that’s only going to build the trust,” senior catcher Allie Daly said. “Once we get out on the field that’s when it’s all going to happen and we are going to figure out where we are at that point.”
They will all need to be able to put the pieces together against a schedule that includes 20 of 56 games against opposition that was ranked in the Top 50 RPI at the end of last season.
“Our schedule is loaded,” Klyse said. “It’s the hardest schedule we’ve ever had. Right now with our conference being a one-bid league our approach is to play our hardest each game and get better. Sure it’s great to have a higher RPI, but our focus is just this game and it doesn’t matter if it’s conference or not.”
But to win the league?
“We have to get better every day and stay healthy,” Klyse said. “Today is the most important game and that’s all that matters.”
The Arms Race
It doesn’t hurt when a pitching staff can start with an ace like the reigning Summit League Freshman of the Year, Rachel Cue.
“Rachel’s feisty and you watch her on the mound and you don’t really know what she’s thinking,” Klyse said. “She’s a competitor and she likes to win. She’s got a little bit of everything and we are working some new pitches in that she didn’t have last year. She throws all the pitches and really no go-to pitch, but her screwball could be considered (a go-to). She’s added some stuff.
The sophomore Cue is confident of the possibilities the team and she herself may see become reality.
“We are good this year,” Cue said. “We’re all just trying to stay healthy and we push each other to get better and be successful. We have a good group this year and I think we can go far with them.
“I put in a lot of work in the offseason, we all did. There are no days off. I know what to expect this year. I am ready.”
Junior Madison Frain will have plenty to offer at the No. 2 spot as she comes in with a fresh, new, mindset.
“She’s seen some really good innings for us,” Klyse said. “She’s in a real good spot mentally this year which is only going to help us. Her physical game has always been strong now we are just working on her metal game and being level headed the entire time.”
Sophomore Kayla Fields and freshman Megan Green will hopefully offer some quality depth.
“We will hopefully see some time from both of them as well,” Klyse said. “None of the pitchers are the same and they are all very different.”
The battery has had plenty of time to get to know each other and grow.
“For the main part we have the same pitchers we had last year,” Daly said. “We have been preparing all winter long and I think we are going in the right direction. It’s going to be nice to get out on the dirt and play some ball.
“We have grown as a pitching-combination that’s for sure.”
The coach and catcher relationship being strong helps a lot too.
“We communicate really well,” Klyse said of the coach-catcher relationship. “She calls the games, but it’s constant communication between the two of us. She calls it and we talk in between innings or sometimes during an in-bat.”
Cue is confident her defense backing her up is ready to go.
“It’s just now up to someone to step up and be the leader,” Cue said. “Klyse has taught them ‘hit the ball to me,’ and I think they all have it in them. I have all the faith that wherever the ball is hit I have all the faith in them that they will make the play.”
Klyse wants her team to take its swings and still take inventory on what the opposing pitcher is offering before committing to a specific offensive attack in each game.
“I am not huge on a small ball to manufacture a run,” Klyse said. “We have some speed and we have some power, so hit and run is definitely an option.”
Klyse noted the bats of senior outfielder Katie Dinning as a power slapper who will lead off for the Coyotes and junior first base/outfielder Yvon Minogue who offers a solid all-around bat who wins most intersquad hitting competitions.
“Yvon just has it, whatever it is,” Klyse said. “I don’t know how to describe it.”
The coach also indicated Daly as a fierce competitor who can definitely get the big swings in.
“She’s my least favorite person to pitch batting practice to,” Klyse admitted. “She can hit it, she can hit hard, and she’s very aggressive. She’s worked very hard to work out her hitting flaws.”
If all goes well as planned, the USD program is heading in a course where it expects to continue to build a consistent Summit League threat.
Now it just matters on bringing in future players who want to play in Vermillion and help the current players take the program to the next level.
“We go after kids who want something different,” Klyse said of recruiting kids to play an outside sport in the snowy and cold Midwest. “It doesn’t have to be a bad thing, it can just be a different thing.
“A lot of recruiting is getting the right kid, at the right time, and the right fit.”
The right fit could lead to continued progress.
“The Summit League has really grown since I’ve been here,” Daly said. “We had how many teams in the Top 90 last year? We are at the point where we could one day get two teams in the (64-team) tournament.
“This year as a team we will be a strong competitor and our goal is to take conference and we have a special chance for that.”