OKLAHOMA CITY (Feb. 11, 2014) – Oklahoma Christian softball coach Tom Heath sits in his new office in the new stadium that bears his name and knows something special has happened to the program he built and has nurtured for two decades.
After a season essentially without a home, the Lady Eagles will begin play this season in the $3.9 million Tom Heath Field at Lawson Plaza, one of the finest facilities in all of small-college softball. Heath believes he has a squad that could potentially make the first season in its new digs a special one, one that could create sustained momentum for the program moving forward.
It’s the sort of opportunity that doesn’t come around often.
“Starting the program was huge, but we didn’t really know going in what it was going to be like over the years,” said Heath, whose squad will open the season Thursday at Midwestern State (Texas). “But now that we’re in our 20th year, we know what’s going on and this new complex … is about the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to this softball program since the beginning. This is truly a very exciting time for us.”
After the 2012 season, OC’s last as a member of the NAIA, old Lady Eagle Field – the program’s home since its inception in 1995 – was torn down. Last season, the Lady Eagles played only seven “home” dates, all either at Edmond North High School or ASA Hall of Fame Stadium.
Despite the lack of a true home field and numerous weather issues that forced the wholesale shift of two Heartland Conference series from homestands to road trips, OC managed to finish 22-22 and reach the National Christian College Athletic Association Central Region title game. Had the Lady Eagles’ games counted in the Heartland standings, they would have finished third.
OC lost only two players from last year’s squad, meaning there’s a veteran core to provide offensive firepower as two young pitchers join two veterans in the circle to form a potentially potent staff. Plus, with an artificial turf infield and an indoor practice facility, the Lady Eagles have been able to squeeze in more quality practice time than in previous years.
“We’re more ready to play right now than we ever have been and that’s largely due to the indoor facility,” Heath said. “And we’ve been able to get out on the turf … 15 minutes after it stops raining. It has allowed us to really prepare the team this year more and earlier than we have in the past. We’re ready to play right now. We’re going to be more prepared than most teams.”
Juniors Taylor Mosher (8-5, 4.66 ERA) and Krystal Rodriguez (5-3, 5.06) return in the pitching circle, providing experience at softball’s most critical position. They will be pushed by freshmen hurlers Shea Coats and Haley Squier, who both bring stellar prep credentials to OC.
Heath said that during preseason practice, Coats emerged as the Lady Eagles’ No. 1 pitcher, while Mosher and Squier are neck-and-neck for the No. 2 spot and should both receive plenty of starting opportunities. Rodriguez will serve mostly as a bullpen ace. All four should receive plenty of playing time, Heath said.
Sophomore Danielle Collins, who pitched last season for OC, will play in the outfield this season after showing promise last season as a hitter.
Behind the plate, senior Martha Thomas (.374, 10 HRs, 36 RBIs) will be OC’s top option. Thomas quickly became one of the Heartland’s most feared sluggers last season, finishing with a .764 slugging percentage, and was a second-team all-conference pick. Her 10 home runs last season ranked fourth on OC’s all-time single-season list and she’ll start 2014 as the Lady Eagles’ cleanup hitter.
Freshman catcher Niki Davidson will see playing time – sometimes as the designated player – because of her bat, while utility player deluxe Courtney Starr (.293, 3 HRs, 26 RBIs) also can catch. Senior Krista Martony, who missed last season due to injury, gives the Lady Eagles yet another option at catcher.
Another senior, Lauren Pittman (.227, 1 HR, 11 RBIs), will be OC’s starting first baseman so the Lady Eagles can take advantage of her outstanding defensive play, while freshman Haley Goodin could see spot action. All-Heartland second-team selection Monique Elliott (.311, 10 RBIs, 9 stolen bases) is a fixture at second base.
On the other side of the infield, junior shortstop Kendra Pierce (.418, 5 HRs, 54 RBIs) is arguably the conference’s best hitter, leading the league in RBIs last season despite OC’s abbreviated schedule. She also ranked second in the league in hits (61), doubles (22) and total bases (100), third in batting average, sixth in on-base percentage (.448) and tied for eighth in home runs, but received only second-team All-Heartland honors.
At third base, senior Kala Ratliff (.263, 2 HRs, 30 RBIs) is another fixture and one of the top defensive players in the conference. Freshmen Jordan Chism and Abby Taliaferro, both of who played for top-notch prep programs, could also see playing time at the hot corner.
Starr will be the opening-day starter in left field, while Collins (.231, 3 HRs, 8 RBIs) and Taliaferro also will see action there.
Senior Sarah (Peoples) Endres (.303, 4 HRs, 25 RBIs), the team’s fastest player, will enter her fourth season as the starting center fielder. Endres tied for the conference lead last season in triples (two) and also tied for fourth in stolen bases (13). As the team’s No. 9 hitter, she often sets the table nicely for the top of OC’s lineup.
Senior Lauren Chatigny (.331, 17 RBIs) will enter her second season as OC’s starting right fielder, a position Heath said is “just made for her.” She likely will serve as the Lady Eagles’ leadoff hitter.
The Lady Eagles will debut their new stadium next Tuesday against West Texas A&M and will have a grand-opening celebration March 8 against Southwestern Oklahoma State. OC will play a regular Heartland schedule this season before hosting the NCCAA regional tournament May 8-10.
“We’re setting our goals pretty high this year,” Heath said. “We started recruiting a couple of years ago for this stage – (NCAA) Division II and this stadium. We are excited. We are ready to play.”