Cougar softball season opens Friday

The outlook for another Region IX title is promising for the Western Nebraska Community College softball team as they look to open their season on Friday against Colby Community College.

WNCC coach Maria Winn-Ratliff said all the pieces are in place for an outstanding season, but one really never knows until they step on the diamond for competition.

"We have been outside quite a bit so that has been nice to assess them offensively and defensively and to have a better idea of our character and chemistry on the field," she said. "There are times when we inter-squad where our pitchers throw real well but at the same time I am disappointed that our hitters didn't hit very well and vice versa. Until we get out there and play another opponent, I can't give a true assessment of where we are at right now or where we should be. There are things we still need to get better at, but I think playing someone else will give an idea to have unstructured in the game and give us a better idea where we are at."

With the structured practices that the team has had, the team is definitely looking at facing someone else.

"They [the players] are always excited for the season but it is also hard because we play the first six weeks on the road," Winn-Ratliff said. "But, they are excited to get that game under their belt. From a coaching standpoint, I am ready to get out there. I really feel like we really need some competition besides ourselves."

The Cougars, who finished 45-26 a year ago, will begin their quest for a fourth straight Region IX title when they face Colby on Friday and Saturday in Colby, Kan. After that, the road continues to be a stiff challenge as they will compete in the Midland Tournament Feb. 15-17 before facing their first conference game against Lamar Community College on Feb. 24.

Colby will definitely give WNCC a test. Winn-Ratliff said they are a team that brought in several transfers, two of which played for the Cougars last season. Then the road gets harder and harder and the team needs to take each game one at a time.

"They [Colby] compete and they play hard. They are hard to beat at home," she said. "So, in the first few weeks, we definitely will learn a lot about ourselves as players, people and has teammates before we get ready to play that conference game on Feb. 24."

Winn-Ratliff said the offense has been picking up lately. In the team's 21-inning scrimmage on Sunday, the Cougars blasted five home runs, including two from returning sophomore Mariah Shepherd. Shepherd actually went 7 of 9 in the structured scrimmage.

"We started out a little slow on hitting as some of the players forgot what we told them in the fall," she said. "The last scrimmages that we had our offense has looked really good, and our pitching has looked really well. We are still battling, but we kind of have an idea of what our lineup will be.

This year's team will be centered around eight returning sophomores, six of which saw action a year ago. The six include Bianca Duran of Westminster, Colo., Kayla Romey of Gering, Kimmie Widick of Greeley, Colo., Danielle Hearn of Santa Monica, Calif., Kasey Cash of Wellington, Colo., and Shepherd of Gransville, Utah.

The Cougars also return Haley Paxton of Greeley, Colo., and Melanie Rowson of Vancouver, British Columbia, who red-shirted after undergoing surgery last year.

The newcomers are talented. Leading the list is sophomore transfer Madison Spencer of Gering. Spencer spent her freshman year at Northeastern Junior College.

The other freshmen will play a part in the make-up of the team in various capabilities. And it is that depth that makes Winn-Ratliff excited.

The newcomers include Ravae Herrera and Shelby McGraw of Pueblo, Colo.; Lindsey Shiels-Brophy of Broomfield, Colo.; Angel Council of Las Vegas, Nev., Hailee Mecham of Spanish Fork, Utah; Nicole Weiss of Harrisville, Utah, and Jennifer Cottle of Lehi, Utah.

Pitching will definitely be a factor in the season. The Cougars return last year's number picture in Duran. Duran finished with a 25-16 record with a 1.71 earned run average. Duran struck out 176 batters last season. Winn-Ratliff said that Duran is determined to become a better and more dominating pitcher this season.

"It is great for us that Bianca was a freshman last year and had the success that she had. She has the game experience," she said. "Shelby McGraw comes in and competes hard. She is one of those kids that wants the ball and wants to get better. We also picked up a great transfer [Ravae Herrera] who we liked out of high school and spent the fall at Colorado Mesa. She has blossomed and we had a need for another pitcher, losing Lacey Buckey to a career-ending injury. She has come in and is getting better each day."

WNCC will need to play well as a team if they have hopes of making a fourth straight trip to the national tournament since the road to nationals will be more difficult. Region IX changed its tournament format, but the added twist will include the Region IX winner playing the Kansas Region winner in a district best-of-three series.

WNCC's first home games won't be until the middle of March when they host McCook Community College and Dawson Community College on March 13 and 14.

Fans can follow Cougar softball on the web with live webcasting of statistics and play-by-play at gamechanger.io/ Western Nebraska Community College fans can sign up to follow the action here: www.gamechanger.io and then Western Nebraska Community College Lady Cougars 2013.

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