Chalk 2013 up as an educational moment for the Texas Tech softball team.
In three years since taking over the program, Shanon Hays turned the Red Raiders from Big 12 afterthoughts into a regional team. But last year saw Tech take a step back due to youth, and its struggles prevented a third straight regional berth.
But as they began spring practices for the 2014 season on Sunday at Rocky Johnson Field, they have no intentions of going through those trials and tribulations again.
“Though we’re really young, I think a lot of people have grown up through the fall in multiple positions,” senior pitcher Brittany Talley said. “I think they’re ready to start playing Big 12 (competition) already.
“Coach Hays learned a lot and so did a lot of us about leadership. That was our biggest problem and I think, being a senior, he’s put a lot of pressure on us to step up and take over that role. I know it’s helped me and I think we’ll be good this year.”
The Red Raiders will need that leadership to avoid a repeat. Tech returns just 10 letterwinners from last year’s team that went 30-26 overall and 4-14 in the Big 12.
Infielder/outfielders Taylor Powell, a senior, and Sydni Tapia, a sophomore, and sophomore infielder Samantha Camello return to anchor the lineup, and Hays got a big boost with the signing of Class 5A Player of the Year Cassie McClure from Humble Kingwood, who will provide some pop in the middle of the order.
“We have so much potential,” Powell said. “Everybody keeps harping on your youth, and that’s true, but we have so much potential to tap into. With that youth comes a lot of energy and a lot of excitement, and going into Big 12 we’re going to need that.”
Camello is the leading returning hitter with a .311 average in 2013, but between Camello, Powell and Tapia the Red Raiders return just three home runs and 54 RBIs.
Other than that, Tech must replace its entire starting outfield and several positions on the infield, including catcher. Tech also had three girls transfer in at semester, including Camaury Prados-Washington, the sister of Tech running back DeAndre Washington.
Defense also has to improve as Tech’s .949 fielding percentage was worst in the Big 12, and Tech led the league with 85 errors.
But Hays is confident the newcomers are talented and athletic enough to make up for what was missing, and that overall youth won’t be a problem again this season.
“I think with the recruiting pieces we’ve added and some of the late additions that we’ve put on our roster will help us,” said Hays, who enters his fifth season since coming over from Lubbock Christian. “Last year we had some glaring holes and weakness that we didn’t have the year before, and you put that with a lot of youth and it made us an average team. This year we have the talent and the capabilities to be a really good team.”
Tech also has some changeover in the coaching staff, but Hays brought in someone familiar with the school in former assistant baseball coach Greg Evans. Evans, who coached at Tech from from 1998 to 2003, also coached at Oklahoma State from 2004 to 2012.
The wealth of Tech’s experience is in the circle with Talley and junior right-hander Cara Custer, who combined for 23 of Tech’s wins a year ago and 280 innings pitched.
But even they have to improve greatly as Tech was next-to-last in the Big 12 with a 4.26 ERA.
“This is the best situation we’ve been in since I’ve been here as far as in the circle as far as having season veterans who have been through it and have the ability to get wins in the Big 12,” Hays said. “Some of the other teams in the Big 12 that have had great pitchers the last four years, those pitchers have graduated and they’ll replace them with good talent. But it’s hard to replace those Team USA girls, so we feel we’re in a good spot in the Big 12 and we’re anxious to get there.”
The Red Raiders open the season Feb. 6 at the Lion Classic in Hammond, La. Tech’s home opener isn’t until Feb. 28 against Sam Houston State as part of the Texas Tech Invitational.
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