Thursday, April 27, 2017

How does Wichita State's move change the AAC softball scene?

The Wichita State Shockers will move to the American Athletic Conference (AAC) in 2018 in all sports except football, which the school does not sponsor. The move will balance the conference out with twelve schools in both football and basketball, as the Naval Academy is a football-only member.

Though the move has been broadcast as being led by motives on the hardwood, there are some serious softball implications that go along with the change, as well.

The Shockers have been at or near the top of the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) softball scene for most of Kristi Bredbenner's term as head coach, a tenure that has most recently included advancing to the regional round of the NCAA tournament in 2016 and beating AAC champion Tulsa in a game in that portion of the tournament, before ultimately being eliminated.

The Shockers have seen some solid talent come their way over the last several years, a good portion of it due to their success under Bredbenner. The Shockers have also proven to be a breeding ground for young, successful hitting coaches, as current Mississippi State hitting coach Samantha Ricketts got her coaching start in Wichita and current hitting coach Nicole Hudson Entz shows no signs of sticking in the mid-major ranks for good.

The AAC, considered the proverbial "sixth man" and "best of the rest" to some of its Power Five neighbors, is a loaded softball conference in its own right. With defending champions Tulsa, perennial contender South Florida, as well as recent contender UCF, up-and-comer East Carolina, and the rebuilding Houston, among others, the AAC is packed left to right with teams that could be in contention each and every season.

The addition of the Shockers could very easily mean a shake-up atop the AAC's softball power scene, as well as a significant decrease from the Missouri Valley's resume and season's product without the Shockers program. Illinois State and Northern Iowa both currently lead the Shockers in the conference standings, but neither has historically shown the ability to hang at the top annually, as Bredbenner's program has.

Losing the Shockers from conference play will also hurt the resume of the eventual NCAA tournament-bound MVC tournament champion. Instead of a three-game series against a perennial NCAA-bound team to boast of, the conference competition is likely to be very level, with few exceptions. That will hurt the Missouri Valley Conference when it comes to determining the placements for the NCAA bracket.

Just as the MVC will suffer a significant loss with the departure of the Shockers, the AAC will gain a significant boost from the move. Teams will have another long-term NCAA mainstay to compete against, not only providing them with power points in victories, but also bolstering their own resumes if they emerge victorious. Teams such as Tulsa and UCF are less likely to enjoy adding three games against a top-80 team every year, but if they can adapt, it will certainly be a bolster to the conference programs' strength of schedule and their position in the RPI.

Undoubtedly, there will also be an impact stemming from this move during awards season; an extra three outings against tournament-level offenses or a solid showing at the plate against a former all-conference hurler can help make or break a case for all-region, all-American, or individual honors.

Wichita State going to the AAC was a bit of a surprise, even with a few small rumors ahead of the announcement. With the conference switch becoming official in 2018, the impact the move has on the softball landscape should be quickly-realized.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Where Are They Now: Jenna Modic

Who is she? Jenna Modic, a former pitcher and infielder for the Pittsburgh Panthers.

Photo: Pitt Athletics Media Relations
What is she known for? Modic spent the first two seasons of her career at Miami (Ohio), earning all-MAC first-team honors in her freshman season. Transferring to Pittsburgh prior to her junior season, Modic was part of the Panthers team that reached the conference championship game and the NCAA tournament. She was twice named an all-ACC selection and earned all-region honors in 2015.

Here's something interesting... Jenna's father, Brett, played college football for Youngstown State.

Quotable quote: "When I look back on my career, I took advantage of the opportunity that I had. I didn't work as hard as I should have at a younger age. I didn't pay attention to the small details like stretching, conditioning, and lifting. I thought of practice as more of a chore then a privilege. If I knew then what I know now, I would have worked hard and enjoyed the opportunity that was placed in front of me. To the next generation, it goes quick. Your career will fly by and I promise you’re going to be looking back saying “where did the time go”. Embrace everything that is thrown at you and always give 100%."

What's she up to now? After graduating from Pittsburgh, Jenna entered the world of sales and presently works in Outside Sales for UniFirst Corporation, a uniform-rental company based in Wilmington, Massachusetts. She also gives lessons, both hitting and pitching, on the side.

Keep up: You can find Jenna on Twitter @jennamodic23.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

2017 NPF Draft Recap

The 2017 NPF Draft is in the books, and if you missed it, never worry, never fear - our recap is here!

The Picks
Photo: Colin Abbey
It was relatively obvious leading up to the draft that the #1 overall pick would come from a small pool of five or six players. Sure enough, that held to be true as Florida State pitcher Jessica Burroughs was selected by the USSSA Pride with the top pick. She will play for her college coach at the pro level, in Pride head coach Lonni Alameda.

The Big Ten was represented early and fairly well, with five picks coming from four of the conference's teams. Minnesota's Sara Groenewegen was selected at #2 overall by the Akron Racers, making it an all-pitcher draft through two selections. She also was the first player selected with ties to a national program, as a member of the Canadian National team.

Two of the Chicago Bandits' three picks came back-to-back in the middle of the first round, and the defending league champions filled out a rookie battery for themselves, drafting LSU catcher Sahvanna Jaquish at #3 and Cal Poly pitcher Sierra Hyland at #4. The selection of Jaquish marked the second year in a row that the Bandits selected a catcher out of Baton Rouge, following Kellsi Kloss in 2016. Hyland marked the Big West conference's first NPF draftee since Stephanie Ricketts in 2012 who, coincidentally, was also selected by the Bandits.

Baton Rouge got to celebrate again quickly, as Jaquish's teammate Bailey Landry was selected at #5 overall, the first player to go off the board to the Texas Charge. Landry currently sits in the top five in the nation with a .465 batting average. Beth Torina continues to prove that her program in Baton Rouge is a true breeding ground for pro talent.

Home run record-chaser Katiyana Mauga of Arizona was the first Wildcat to come off the board, going to the Texas Charge with the sixth overall pick. Mauga, who currently sits at eighty-eight career home runs, is just seven away from tying Lauren Chamberlain's all-time record, and will now likely get the opportunity to face Chamberlain at the professional level.

Michigan pitcher Megan Betsa marked the Akron Racers' second selection of the draft, as well as their second pitcher selected out of the Big Ten conference. The righty hurler has enjoyed a stellar career at Michigan and will now be teamed with the player with whom she has fought over the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year award for three seasons running.

The first Team USA-associated player went off the board at #8 in Arizona's Danielle O'Toole. Without the USA affiliation, O'Toole likely would have been the favorite to go first overall. She currently sports a 24-3 record on the year and has been a workhorse in the circle for the Wildcats.

USSSA enjoyed back-to-back selections to close the second round and picked up the third Arizona Wildcat and second Florida State Seminole of the night in Mo Mercado and Alex Powers. Like her teammate Burroughs, Powers will join her collegiate head coach Lonni Alameda in the pros and will continue one of the best stories in softball, having come back with a vengeance after two knee surgeries to begin her career. Mercado may be the best hitter on the Wildcats roster, Mauga's power show notwithstanding. She currently leads the league-leading Wildcats with a .407 mark.

The third round went like this:
11. Akron - Chloe Miller, Wisconsin
12. Scrap Yard - Delanie Gourley, Florida
13. Scrap Yard - Ali Aguilar, Washington
14. Texas - Haley Chambers-Book, SIU-Edwardsville
15. Akron - Megan Geer, Tennessee

The Racers picked up early one of the draft's biggest steals in Miller, the catcher and utility player out of Madison. Gourley was the second Team USA-affiliated player who likely saw her stock drop because of the commitment. The Texas Charge made an on-the-spot move to acquire Gourley, giving up the #13 and #25 picks to the Scrap Yard in exchange. Aguilar was the first USA position player to be selected, while Chambers-Book represented the Ohio Valley Conference on draft night for the first time in nearly a decade. Geer is the second former "Lady" Vol to be drafted in the last two years.

Here's how the fourth round went down:
16. Akron - Sydni Emanuel, Georgia
17. Scrap Yard - Hannah Flippen, Utah
18. Scrap Yard - Nikki Udria, Oregon
19. USSSA - Mandie Perez, Arizona
20. USSSA - Kelly Christner, Michigan

Akron selected back-to-back SEC stars to close the third and open the fourth round; in Emanuel, they gained a significant amount of speed on the basepaths. Flippen marked the fourth USA-affiliated player to hear her name called, the second looking forward to spending part of her summer in Houston. Udria, the top non-USA middle infielder available, is likely to get playing time even as a rookie. Perez was the fourth member of the Wildcats senior class to go off the board, joining her teammate Mercado as rookies and Wildcat alums on the Pride roster. Christner, who may well be a dark horse candidate for the Rookie of the Year award in the Pride outfield.

Only Akron, Texas, and the Scrap Yard Dawgs made selections in the final round. Here's who they chose:

21. Akron - Nicole Schroeder, Arkansas
22. Texas - Lindsey Cargill, Baylor
23. Akron - Maddy Grimm, Kent State
24. Akron - Alexis Silkwood, Mississippi State
25. Scrap Yard - MJ Knighten, Nebraska
26. Scrap Yard - Morgan Zerkle, Marshall

Schroeder's hot start to the year and consistency since earned her a nod on draft night - the youngest of the quartet of Schroeder sisters will head to Akron. Cargill is the third Baylor Bear to be drafted since 2015; the previous two, Kaitlyn Thumann (2015) and Heather Stearns (2016) never suited up in the league. Will Cargill be an exception to that rule? Grimm was Joey Arrietta's annual low-risk, high-reward selection from the nearby region and gives the Racers GM a stellar potential future starter on the left side of the infield. Silkwood has been a big part of the success this season in Starkville and earned a nod on draft night for her efforts. Knighten, a 2016 all-American, and Zerkle, a Team USA player, rounded out the draft and will head to Houston.

The Breakdown
Five of the seven USA-affiliated eligible players were selected, leaving UCLA's Delaney Spaulding and Auburn's Kasey Cooper as the lone standouts in that category.

The SEC and PAC-12 tied atop the conference breakdown, with seven players selected from each conference. The Big Ten had five draftees, while the ACC saw two. The Big 12, Big West, Ohio Valley, Mid-American, and Conference USA all saw a single player selected from their leagues.

Eight pitchers were selected during the course of the draft; each of the first two players selected came from the circle, while the latest selection of a pitcher was Akron's choice of Alexis Silkwood at #24 overall.

Just two catchers were selected, in Jaquish and Miller, though it serves as an interesting footnote that neither are exclusively behind the plate throughout the course of the season. Jaquish can also play the infield corners well, while Miller can rotate to a score of different positions away from the backstop.

Haley Chambers-Book of SIU-Edwardsville was the first player from the Ohio Valley Conference to be drafted by the NPF since Beth Boden of Tennessee Tech in 2008. If she plays, Chambers-Book will be the fifth OVC alum to play in the NPF.

The Arizona Wildcats were by far the most represented team in the draft, garnering four selections just from their roster. Florida State, LSU, and Michigan were the only other programs to have more than one player drafted.

The Grades
Akron - B+
Chicago - A-
Scrap Yard - C-
Texas - B

The Awards
Team That Best Filled Their Needs: Bandits
Best Sleeper Pick: Kelly Christner, Pride 
Biggest Steal: Morgan Zerkle, Dawgs 
Biggest Surprise: Haley Chambers-Book, Charge 
Player Drafted Way Too High: Jessica Burroughs, Pride 
Player Drafted Way Too Low: Nikki Udria, Dawgs 
Best Player(s) Not Drafted: Delaney Spaulding, UCLA; Kasey Cooper, Auburn; Kelsee Selman, Baylor; Nickie Blue, South Carolina

The Broadcast
For the first time, the draft was broadcast via "NPFTV", the league's online broadcasting platform. With no television deal - in whole or part - in place for the 2017 season, any games that are seen will have to be done so via this avenue.

The broadcast started about ninety seconds late, but the stream kicked off approximately five minutes prior to the scheduled 7:00 (CT) start. Several voices could be heard over the live mic, some particularly distinctly. Production notes and commands could also be heard.

Veteran broadcast team Eric Collins, a longtime play-by-play man for softball and other sports, and Barbara Jordan served as the commentators for the event. Jordan always has a statistic at the ready, and this night was no exception. With the exception of a couple of sidebar comments by Collins that seemed poorly thought-out or ill-timed, both did well at steering the direction of the broadcast and providing some biographical information on each player selected.

Biographical graphics were available on the drafted players, but the broadcast was fairly simplistic otherwise. The "draft room", which contained executives from each teams and several player representatives, was always in full view behind the broadcast team. Kempf went to a stand-alone microphone in the middle of this room to announce each selection.

The band performing during the evening sounded quite good at times - including an impressive rendition of Maren Morris' My Church at one point - but also provided a distraction at times. The music stopped very briefly, if at all, through the hour-and-a-half long broadcast, including while Kempf was making the announcement of draftees. Often, when the commissioner would pause for effect before naming the drafted player, instead of suspense-drawing silence, the band could still be clearly heard.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Texas Charge Sign Brittany Mack

The Texas Charge have added another big name to their roster just days before this year’s NPF draft, signing a former #1 pick on Friday. 

Former LSU Tiger Brittany Mack has signed with the team, marking her comeback four years after her last NPF pitch was thrown. Mack was drafted with the first overall pick by the USSSA Pride in 2012, spending that season with the squad and the 2013 season with the Akron Racers. 

A 2011 all-American and two-time all-region honoree, Mack was also three times named an all-state selection for the state of Louisiana, including the all-Louisiana first team in 2011. 

Mack joins a Charge roster that includes five other hurlers and puts a Bayou Bengal alum on three of the five league teams' rosters. She is one of four 2012 graduates on the Charge roster.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Tina Whitlock Joins British National Team Coaching Staff

Tina Whitlock (nee Plew), a former all-American player and assistant coach at South Carolina, has been named the new pitching coach for the Great Britain national team's competition this summer.

Whitlock, second from left, with teammates in a recent reunion
of the 1997 SEC champion Gamecocks.
Whitlock most recently served as the volunteer assistant coach at South Carolina. Prior to that, she was a head coach at the Division II level in Greenwood, South Carolina and Syracuse, New York. She led the Syracuse-based Le Moyne to the first-ever NCAA tournament experience in school history in 2009.

A former Gamecock player, Whitlock was a two-time all-American during her collegiate career, earning the honor in 1995 and 1997. Her name even still sits atop the record books in several career statistical categories in the program's laurels. Following her collegiate career, Whitlock spent time as a member of the US National Team, as well as in the Women's Professional Softball League, the predecessor to what is now the NPF.

Whitlock's coaching career also includes stops at USC-Upstate, Chattanooga, and Mercer, in addition to several years at the high school ranks.

Members of the British National Team have included players such as Louisville alum Alicja Wolny and Columbus State utility player and outfielder Keeli Waugh.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Three Auburn Players Arrested for Drug Possession; End of Tigers' Postseason Hopes?

Three Auburn softball players - starting pitcher McKayla Martin, shortstop Haley Fagan, and reserve outfielder Brittany Maresette - were arrested on charges of marijuana possession and possession of drug paraphernalia in the wee hours of Thursday morning.

L-R, Fagan, Martin, and Maresette in their Auburn headshots
The trio were each charged with Possession of Marijuana, Second Degree and Possession of Drug Paraphernalia. No description was put on the latter charge as to what paraphernalia the trio may have been in possession of, but the second-degree classification on the initial charge defines the marijuana as being for personal use and classifies the charge as a misdemeanor.

According to the arrest report, all three players were under the influence of drugs at the time of their arrest and were held immediately following their arrests.

The players were suspended indefinitely by the Auburn softball team and did not travel with the team to South Carolina, where they are set to play a three-game conference series, beginning Friday night.

The Tigers have a total of ten games left on their regular-season slate, including the series against South Carolina. Mississippi State travels to Auburn for a conference series next weekend, while the Tigers will finish the year in a series against Alabama at Tuscaloosa. They also have a single non-conference game remaining, Alabama State on April 26th.

Ranked #2 in the latest RPI release, the Tigers are a solid bet to host both a regional and super regional, barring a collapse at the end of the regular season and in the conference tournament.

Fagan has been the Tigers' starting shortstop this season after returning from an injury-abbreviated 2016 campaign. At the time of her arrest, she was hitting .323 on the year with six home runs and twenty-nine RBI. Martin, a sophomore, was 16-5 on the season at the time of her arrest with a 2.05 season ERA in more than 119 innings of work. Maresette, a freshman, has been utilized in primarily a reserve pinch-running role.

The incident is the latest in a string of off-the-field happenings that have affected the Auburn program this season. Haley Fagan was involved in another national headline-maker after a shoving incident with Florida head coach Tim Walton earlier this year, while assistant coach Corey Myers left the program shortly after that incident under a cloud of morality questions of his own. 

Having reached the Women's College World Series championship series last year, taking their season to the very last game possible, the Tigers were thought to be solid championship contenders this year. The string of off-the-field incidents have cast a dark cloud over Jane B. Moore Field, however, leaving the softball Tigers in something of a state of disarray close to the end of the season and the postseason's dawn.

No word has been released as to the length of the trio of players' suspensions or when - or if - they will return to the field for the Tigers. Though Martin and Maresette are both underclassmen, Fagan is a redshirt senior and in her final season.

Despite an admittedly-changing national climate towards marijuana use, the drug remains illegal for recreational use in many states and the state of Alabama has some of the toughest marijuana-related laws still in existence. The misdeameanors that the players were charged with - what amounts to possession for personal use - are each punishable by up to and not more than a year in jail and up to a $6,000 fine. If they are convicted of the crime of possession, a second similar charge in the state of Alabama in the future would be considered a Class C felony and carry a minimum of one year in jail if convicted.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Saint Francis Commit Dies in ATV Accident

A high school senior committed to play at Saint Francis died in an ATV accident on April 14th.

Mikayla Focht, who was set to play for the Red Flash next season, was a passenger on the ATV (all-terrain vehicle) when it hit deer that were on the roadway, leading the vehicle to overturn and throw both Focht and the driver.

Neither the driver, a twenty-three-year-old man, nor Focht were wearing helmets, according to reports. She was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident that happened around 4:00 in the morning.

Focht was scheduled to graduate from Hollidaysburg Area High School later this spring. She was just 18.

The Red Flash noted Focht's death in a tribute from the team's Twitter account: