March 22, 2007
North Carolina native Harry Golden once said, "The only thing that overcomes hard luck is hard work." Western Carolina's softball team has learned that lesson in spades this spring.
The Catamounts have seen a lot of changes since winning the Southern Conference regular season title in 2006. The club has a new coach in Chrsitine Hornak, after the departure of their first-ever Head Coach Megan Smith, and the lineup has also been shaken up this spring.
Western Carolina's mettle has been tested thanks to key injuries on the team at the start of the season. The Catamounts are without the services of homerun leader Ashley Adams, as well as sophomore Heather Pritchard and freshman Serena Smith. There is light at the end of the tunnel, however, as Hornak revealed that Pritchard may return to the lineup in the next week.
"I try not to say much about the hard luck we have had due to injuries," Hornak said. "I just tell certain players that we are down someone in that position and they have to step up."
Hornak must have given a very inspirational speech to senior Nikki Bost last weekend when Bost was thrust into the lineup after an injury sidelined Smith. Bost got a nod in the battery against Detroit on March 17 and has been in the lineup ever since. In the last six games the Stony Point, N.C. native is hitting .389 with seven hits, including three for extra bases, homerun, double, triple, and seven RBI. Prior to her hitting breakthrough, Bost had just 12 at bats with two hits, three runs scored and one double.
"I have been very happy with how Nikki has stepped it up lately," Hornak said. "She has really answered the challenge I gave her."
Another answer to the gauntlet thrown down to the team by Hornak is sophomore Lauren Ross. The Hope Mills, N.C., native spent most of her time in the infield last season but with the loss of key pitching elements before the season began, Ross realized she had to dust off her pitching knowledge and contribute to the team.
"Lauren came to me after our meeting, before the spring season, and told me she was willing to take on the added role of a pitcher in the rotation," Hornak said. "I don't know where we would be as a team if Lauren hadn't accepted that role."
Ross threw just eight innings as a freshman last season, making three appearances and had a 0-1 record. Oh, how seasons change. In 2007, Ross is the number two pitcher and is leading the club in ERA with a 4.03. She also has 54 strikeouts in 12 appearances and currently has a 4-4 record.
But let's not forget the reigning Southern Conference Pitcher of the Year, Mendy McKenzie. She is just a sophomore and is carrying the load as the starting pitcher. McKenzie currently leads the team with 75 strikeouts and also has five wins on the season. She is also a constant fixture in the batting lineup after having just 12 at bats the season. She is currently fourth on the team in batting average with a .327 and leads the team in hits with 32.
"I just told Mendy to get out there and show me what she could do in fall practice," Hornak said. "I was impressed with her bat and now she is an important part of the team at the plate."
Leading the club at the plate is sophomore third baseman Stephanie Beatty. The 2007 Best Western Catamount Classic Tournament MVP leads the club with a .360 batting average and is second on the team in hits with 31. She is also tied for second in RBI with 17.
"Stephanie has been phenomenal with the bat," Hornak said. "She keeps it in the zone and has had great success."
Western Carolina is looking to put everything the team has learned the last two months to the test when the Catamounts open Southern Conference play this weekend. The club will face Appalachian State, the team that knocked them out of the Southern Conference Tournament last season.
It was a nine-inning nail-biter that ended with the Mountaineers coming out on top 1-0. Hornak admits it would be nice to defend their title as regular season champions but that doesn't really get a team anywhere. The squad is looking to do well in the regular season and peak come tournament time.
"I try not to dwell on defending the title," Hornak said. "Let's face it, only half of the team that won the title has returned. Now we have to just focus on playing our type of softball and look to peak at the right time."