BLUE DRAGON SOFTBALL SEASON OPENER
Hutchinson (0-0) vs. Pratt (1-5)
When: Thursday, February 8, 2018
Where: Fun Valley (Field 3)
Game times: 2 and 4 p.m.
By Steve Carpenter
Hutchinson CC Sports Information Director
When marking off boxes on a checklist for up-and-coming softball programs, the Hutchinson Community College softball team has knocked off a bunch of items already.
Two years ago, the Blue Dragons finished in a second-place tie in the Jayhawk East and earned its first national ranking since the early 1990s. Last year, the Blue Dragons advanced to its first Region VI Tournament championship game since 1988.
Starting Thursday, the 2018 Blue Dragons look to check off that final box on the checklist – win Region VI and head to the NJCAA National Tournament.
"Last year ended in disappointment, but we've been able to use that as motivation," said 14th-year head coach Jaime Rose, whose Blue Dragons open the season Thursday with a 2 p.m. doubleheader against the Pratt Beavers at Fun Valley. "Now there is an expectation not only to play (in the Region VI championship game), but to win that game.
"Last year, we were excited about playing in it, but we got the feeling from the team that we were shocked to be there. This year that bar has been raised."
Hutchinson returns seven players from a 31-17 team that tied for fourth place in the Jayhawk East and advanced to the regional title game. The 2018 Blue Dragons didn't receive a preseason national ranking, but Rose – the program's winningest coach with a record of 375-282 record through 13 seasons – brings back three of her top hitters and her Nos. 1 and 2 pitchers.
"We are in a really good position with our returners," Rose said. "We have our No. 1 pitcher, our starting third baseman, starting shortstop and starting centerfielder back. That core, along with Raven (Bass) coming back, that's a very solid group to build upon.
Sophomore D.J. Cannon returns as the Blue Dragons' No. 1 pitcher. Cannon, who has earned one preseason All-America nod this season, went 18-9 with a 2.26 earned-run average in 2017. In 145 1-3 innings pitched, Cannon struck out 194, allowed 117 hits and 63 total runs. Opposing hitters hit .218 against her last season.
Sophomore Destiny Schulze also returns after posting a 4-3 record with a 6.22 ERA. Schulze pitched 50 2-3 innings and struck out 21 while giving up 85 hits and 60 runs.
The entire pitching staff will benefit from highly successful pitching coach Ray Aguirre, who joined the coaching staff this season.
"(Coach Aguirre) has done a tremendous job with our pitchers," Rose said. "He is getting them more comfortable with things they weren't as comfortable with in the past. His experience is invaluable. He played fastpitch for 39 years and he's won championships at every level he's coached. He really knows how to communicate to our pitchers about a winning mentality."
"We have a ton more depth than last year," Rose said. "Our hope is to not bring D.J. into Game 2 as much as we did last year which will help later in the season."
Offensively, the Blue Dragons bring back some big bats from an offense that averaged 6.8 runs per game and hit .366.
Sophomore shortstop Izzy Godinez hit .437 with 66 hits, 50 runs and 25 RBIs last season. She had a .494 on-base percentage and was 9 of 9 in stolen bases.
Cannon hit .414 with 48 hits, eight doubles, two home runs and 22 RBIs.
Centerfielder Ashton Reynolds hit .390 with a team-high six home runs, 39 runs scored and 37 RBIs. She also had only one error in 56 fielding chances last season.
Returning to the lineup after injury shortened her season in 2017 is infielder Raven Bass, who in 13 games hit .471 with two homers.
Starting third baseman Kameron Pope hit .304 with 45 hits and a team-high 42 RBIs with seven doubles and three homers.
"We are a gap-to-gap type team with some power," Rose said. "We have a good balance of power and speed and that's really going to put some pressure on other teams this year."
Defensively, the Blue Dragons have four catchers on the roster and Rose said two have stepped up. Freshman Natalie Semmel and Pope have been strong in both the fall season and early workouts in January and February.
If Pope, who started every game at third base as a freshman, goes behind the plate, freshman Kiara DeCrane will get the nod at third base. Godinez fielded .922 as a freshman shortstop last season. At second base, freshman Shelby Felvus has been solid offensively and might find a way in the lineup there. Bass will see a lot of time at first base.
Reynolds will anchor the outfield in center.
"You want your centerfielder to be in charge like your shortstop," Rose said. "We have the luxury to have another centerfielder who will make the transition to left."
Rose referred to Bekah Roberts, who transferred to Hutchinson from Garden City last season. She hit .365 with a .449 on-base percentage with 50 hits and 46 runs scored for the Broncbusters.
As far as right field, that's the only position that isn't truly settled yet.
The Blue Dragons open with four games at home with Pratt on Thursday and Colby on Monday. The Dragons are then on the road for 12 games before returning for an eight-game homestand on March 13 against Hesston College.