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Friday, May 6, 2016

Lady Owls look for more gains this fall

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Sophomore Cheyenne Griffitt is trying to carve out her spot in the Lady Owls' crowded outfield.
(Chris Allen/Democrat-News)
The Marshall girls' softball team is still undergoing the growing pains associated with relatively young programs.

Working in the Lady Owls' favor, though, is a healthy participation level, an active off-season schedule and an enthusiastic attitude. That may not produce an immediate turnaround from the 2-16 record during head coach Stan Henderson's first campaign, but it was the formula which worked for the Marshall baseball program from going from two wins to the MSHSAA Class 3 Championships in five years under Ian Verts.

"The improvement shows by their getting in the win column," going 4-8 in the Lady Owls' summer league, Henderson said. "You can tell a difference this year."

The biggest key to success in fast-pitch softball is pitching, and Marshall returns senior Raha Shahabzada to the circle. She logged most of the innings a year ago and was the pitcher of record for the Lady Owls' two victories.

"She still has her composure on the mound," Henderson noted. "She doesn't get rattled."

Although Shahabzada's statistics weren't impressive, improvement in her command and technique could keep Marshall in more ball games if the offense will come around.

"She's learned how to throw strikes," Henderson said, "so we're working on her changing speed."

Of even greater concern is an offense which posted a low .181 batting average and produced only 56 runs in 18 games a year ago -- and which loses five of its top six hitters. The focal point of the line-up will be senior catcher Jessica Johnson, who hit at a .297 clip and posted a team-high .381 on-base percentage last year.

"She's an important piece to our line-up," Henderson admitted. "I expect her to lead the team this year."

Johnson will also be an important cog as a receiver, where her plate coverage and throwing arm have both shown improvement.

The Lady Owls' infield is solid on the left side with senior Abby Crawford moving to third base from shortstop, where sophomore Mackensie Cochran takes over -- demonstrating range and a good arm.

"She's been my best glove," Henderson said. "She's starting to take on the leadership role on the field for that position by taking charge."

The right side sees competition at both spots, with senior Sam Leimkuehler and sophomore Shelby Dawson battling at second base and first base being hotly contested between seniors Courtney Crusha and Hayley Lyell.

"I'm leaning toward using them both," Henderson mused. "They both work hard in practice and both do some good things."

Junior Bri Varner provides speed in the outfield, while sophomores Cheyenne Griffitt and Hayley Campbell have both flashed potential. There's plenty of depth in that unit -- with senior Hannah Pace, junior Shelby England and sophomore Vallory Smeltser vying for playing time.

"There's competition at pretty much every position," Henderson said. "I feel comfortable throwing any of them out there."

Marshall reduced its errors last year and, equally important, is making better snap decisions when the ball is in play.

"We're not settling for any out, but getting the out we need to get," Henderson explained. "That's what we've been working hardest on."

With a full year together, Henderson and his players are now past the get-acquainted stage.

"Everybody's pretty much spent a whole season with me," he said. "Our practices are more productive; everybody knows what we're doing."

Whether that translates to an increase in wins remains to be seen, especially ending a two-year drought in the NCMC -- a routinely tough league. However, that part of the schedule is especially good preparation for district play, where Henderson's "goal is to make some noise."

"That will be a good measure to see where we're at," Henderson said of the NCMC campaign. "Knowing the teams that are in our district, I expect to go there and compete."

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