By ALAN HOSKINS
KANSAS CITY, KAN. ----- With a combination of youth and experience, Kacy Tillery expects her Kansas City Kansas Community College softball team to be a major factor in the 2014 Jayhawk Conference race.
“Defense and pitching should be our strength,” says Tillery, who is in her 14th season as head coach. “Defensively, we return five starters including most of the infield and while the pitching staff is young, it’s much more solid than a year ago.”
Sophomores make up half of the Blue Devils’ 20-member squad and includes a pair of All-Jayhawk and All-Region selections, third baseman Lacey Santiago and leftfielder Mierra Morisette. A sophomore from Notre Dame de Sion, Morisette hit .459 and handled 55 chances in the outfield without an error last season while Hawaii native Santiago hit .426 from the leadoff spot.
The Blue Devils also return Hanna Barnhart of Bishop Ward at shortstop, Amanda Holyrod of Tonganoxie at second and Emily Welsh of McLouth in right field and could have returned the entire infield intact had not first baseman Sydnee Wilkinson of Omaha suffered a broken foot.
A .296 hitter with 15 RBI last year, Wilkinson is expected to miss the first three weeks of the season. Barnhart led the Blue Devils in runs batted in last season with 29 while hitting .375; Holroyd hit. 340 with 21 RBI; and Welsh batted .208.
Justice Scales, a lefthanded hitting freshman from SM South, will take over the job in centerfield while southpaw freshman Laura Vanderheiden of Blue Valley Southwest will be at first base with backing from frosh Breanna Feight of Salina Central.
Other outfielders in the mix will include freshmen Michelle Perales of Salina Central, Savannah Bailey of Tonganoxie, Marissa Alaniz of Cristo Rey and sophomore redshirt Dallas Partch of Las Vegas.
Megan Dike, a Lansing transfer from Johnson County, has won the starting catching job and will likely bat cleanup with backup from Michelle Perales.
The all-important pitching staff will be headed by Leslie Ford, a freshman from Garden City. “Smart pitcher with good speed and great movement,” says Tillery, who is being assisted by Taci Beatty.
Elizabeth Seimers, a freshman from Ottawa, will likely draw the No. 2 assignment, at least until the return of Blue Valley Southwest frosh Ashley Henington sidelined with tendonitis of the shoulder. Other hopefuls are sophomore Myranda Ybarra of Washington, who pitched in 16 games last year, and freshman Jovanna Ramierz of Turner.
Henington, who can also play first base when healthy, and Seimers are expected to handle most of the designated hitter duties. In addition to Henington and Wilkinson, the Blue Devils will start the season without infielder Aubrie Hernandez-Tavener of Piper who is out with a concussion.
Hitting-wise, the Blue Devils will have speed at the top of the lineup with Santiago and Justice hitting 1-2 with Morrisette and Dike in the 3-4 holes followed by Barnhart and Holroyd.
Weather permitting the Blue Devils open at Ottawa Wednesday and are scheduled to open the home season Saturday, Feb. 22, against a club team from Kansas State at noon and 2 p.m. and then will play three in a row starting March 1 with North Central followed by Neosho County March 4 and Ottawa March 5.
The Blue Devils will play 15 home doubleheaders but must face three of the Jayhawk favorites – Cowley, Highland and Labette – all on the road.