By Alexander Haynes
Only once every few years does a truly resounding air of excitement epitomize a team. Certainly, every year positive and substantial narratives can be built. As all sports go, the unexpected hope of pre-season delivers varying amounts excitement. Yet, Texas State softball is heading into the 2018 season with high expectations buried within an experienced team poised to take command of the Sun Belt conference. Coming off a 42-17 season (18-8 in conference play), and being voted favorite in the Sun Belt Softball Preseason coaches’ poll, Bobcat softball has earned a rare air of austere confidence heading into the season. That pedestal spot will place the Bobcats in the sighs of rival Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns (23-1 in Sun Belt play last year) among others, but the Bobcats have not earned their spot without determination and fortitude defining their play.
Senior Leadership, Depth to Last
The basis of the Bobcat’s expectation comes from the intrinsic teamwork in their play defined by six seniors, and an incoming class of seven freshman. The senior class is led by infielder Ariel Ortiz and pitcher Randi Rupp, both of whom received Sun Belt preseason player and pitcher of the year awards respectively. Ortiz finished last season with a .349 batting average, and a stunning .702 slugging percentage. Rupp was intimidating on the mound in 2017 with a 1.22 era, a 28-10 record, and a .17 walk to strikeout ratio.
While both Ortiz and Rupp secure the top of the class, sophomore Haleigh Davis looks to build on an impressive fielding season in which she netted 196 put outs to zero errors. That level of fielding will be essential as the pitching staff last season is only returning Rupp and Krista Jacobs. Although Jacobs is a junior, she will be taking more responsibility as a veteran in her second year for Texas State. After spending her freshman season at Ole Miss, Jacobs became a Bobcat in 2017, finishing last season with 7.2 innings of pitching, two runs allowed, and five strikeouts.
One of the interesting notes will be how head coach Ricci Woodard handles the pitching staff. Jacobs has shown an astute ability to stare down batters in the relief slot, but with three freshmen rounding the pitching staff out, Jacobs’ veteran prose may be needed inside of the starting rotation. The development of the bullpen and starting rotation will be the key storyline to follow throughout the year.
In a long season of softball, adhering to the process is essential. There will be high points and low points, but substantive consistency is more important than ever. With such a young pitching staff, the bats will need to pick up in key games this year. Certainly, every matchup against the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns will be a fight until the end, but there are other slugfests to pay attention to.
If the Bobcats want to gain national attention early, they host ninth ranked Florida State Seminoles on Friday Feb. 9 at 4 p.m. and Feb. 10 at 12:30 p.m. This will be the first time the two teams have clashed, holding potential upset material and a quick spotlight right off the bat.
The Pac-12 has been regarded as one of the better softball conferences, and the Bobcats get a taste of the west when they travel to Tempe Arizona for the Little Wood Classic. As part of a double header, the Bobcats will play the Arizona State Sun Devils on Feb. 17. The Sun Devils finished 31-22 last season and are looking to make noise in the Pac-12.
Any matchup against another Texas school is worth noting; the Bobcats get a chance in two close knit games against the University of Texas San Antonio Roadrunners on Feb. 28, and then sixth ranked Texas A&M Aggies on March 3. The Roadrunners were beat twice by the Bobcats last season, while the Aggies beat the Bobcats twice last season. As the Aggies have one of the best pitching staffs in the nation, March 3 will be a great test for the Bobcats batting system.
Two more Texas matchups are worth noting: fighting 10th ranked Baylor Bears on March 14, and Austin rival Texas Longhorns on March 21 and April 11 respectively. Two of the most memorable games last season came in a 2-1, extra inning victory over the Longhorns, and a 1-0 nail bitter over the Bears.
Naturally, the Sun Belt run at the end of the season will be essential for the Bobcats to catch fire; from April 7 through May 5, there are six Sun Belt games at Bobcat Stadium, meaning the team will need exuberant community support before the Sun Belt Conference Tournament on May 9. Catching fire in that stretch will be essential for the Bobcats to be more than a regular season powerhouse, reaching their true potential.
Statistical Fun Facts
Every team has good sides to sustain, and the downsides to learn from. The young pitching staff needing fielding support has already been mentioned, but there are other areas to analytically track for a telling sign of the Bobcats long-term success.
The Bobcats finished second in the Sun Belt in walks (234), a strong semblance of plate control. However, 42 of those were thanks to now graduate Taylor Webb. The Bobcats will miss Webb and need to find another player who can approach the plate with her patience.
Despite the 234 walks, there was a certain propensity to strike out, finishing with 234. Considering they advanced the farthest, and thus played the most games (59), there is a certain misnomer to this data line. Albeit, averaging 3.9 strikeouts per game should be lowered to roughly 3.6 to show consistent production.
One of those areas that might increase is slugging percentage, a line the Bobcats landed a .383 rate at. While that is not pointedly bad, and slugging percentage can be a mis-utilized statistic itself, combined with .354 on base percentage, there is production left untapped. Experience should help, but an increase output in those categories just be a mere .015 points would be substantial to creating patterned success.
One fun fact really stood out for the Bobcats: 56 sacrifice hits (bunts), dominating the Sun Belt by 11 sacrifices to second place. The often-overlooked bunt is an analytical debate, so some may find this a mediocre fun fact. However, the story behind this stat is the cognition of stringing together base plays for their 216 RBI’s.
Finally, there is good reason to believe the Bobcats pitching staff will continue to dominate. The total ERA of 1.72 was good enough for 11th in the nation, combined with the 1,210 put outs and 414 assists. Furthermore, teams only tried to steal 24 times, tied for second least in the Sun Belt. Those are lines for a truly selfless, team-oriented roster.
Featured image by Madison Tyson.