After making its second NCAA South Central Region tournament in three years, TWU has its compass set toward winning the Lone Star Conference on the way back to regionals.
“That leaves a good taste in your mouth, but it’s also a bad taste because you never want a season to end,” TWU coach Richie Bruister said of the postseason. “That’s why you’re an athlete and love playing — to come back and try to do better. They definitely have that memory. That know what it takes to get there. We are a veteran team, so they know the hard work that you have to do. You have to have some luck along the way, and you have to be good to be lucky.”
The Pioneers, who went 37-17 last season, were picked to finished second behind Angelo State in this year’s LSC preseason poll. With junior shortstop Bailey Vrazel being named LSC Preseason Player of the Year, Bruister said his team realizes that last season’s march to regionals was just footprints in the sand.
“Last year means nothing, and this team understands that,” Bruister said. “This is a whole new year, and you have to go out there and do it again. We are not going to sneak up on people. I told the team this year, ‘They know who we are. We are going to get everybody’s best pitcher, everybody’s best hitters and defense. They are coming at us. They know they are going to have to play their best to beat us.’ The flip side of that is, we have to play our best and we can’t slack off.”
Vrazel said the team is driven by last season’s success but recognizes that it must play at a high level to contend in the LSC.
“It really lights a fire under us,” Vrazel said. “We really want to go back to regionals, but this year we really want to win conference. We all want it. We are going to start there, and we definitely want to move past regionals. Last year we got a taste, but it’s not enough. There is no weak team, so we have to bring our ‘A’ game out every time. We definitely have a chance to beat Angelo and we definitely have a chance to beat [West Texas A&M] just like we did last year.”
With the Pioneers losing left fielder Addison Staley and catcher Tiffany Weise to graduation, Jordan Readicker will join Vrazel as leaders of this season’s team. Readicker tied a TWU record with 14 home runs last season and led the Pioneers with a .682 slugging percentage.
“I’m so glad that they are on our team and we don’t have to face them,” Bruister said of Vrazel and Readicker. “They are two totally different players. You’ve got the fastest kid in the country [Vrazel] leading off for you to start rallies. What a great player to have on your team.
“And then to have the best home run hitter that TWU has ever had to drive her in is wonderful. People know her across the country. You have to have people on base and you have to score runs to win. Bailey has to have people to drive [her in], and people like Jordan know how to do it. It’s a pleasure coaching them.”
Bruister said his favorite thing about Vrazel and Readicker is their willingness to get better.
“What’s nice is with all the awards they have won, they come out and work harder than the day before and last year,” Bruister said. “They don’t let it get to their heads. They know it means nothing. It’s a great honor to have the respect, but they know they have to go out there and do it on the field.”
Vrazel, who broke her own school and conference records with 75 stolen bases last season, isn’t letting the success affect her quest for improvement.
“I’m just going to do what I’ve been doing my first two seasons,” Vrazel said. “You always feel like you are going to do great, but none of that stuff really matters. I don’t even know how they select [Preseason Player of the Year]. We play as a team and that’s what we are working on. … I’m just going to play the best for my team and not for me.
“I’m trying to improve in a lot of aspects, but I don’t want to take anything away from my game and focus too much on one part. I want to keep doing what I’m doing, because it has worked for me so far.”
This year’s team motto is “One heart, one beat, one team.”
“Our team this year, I would say out of my four years here, is the closest team that we’ve had,” Readicker said. “The leadership doesn’t just stop between me and Bailey. Anyone on this team could take a position in leadership, and we all know that. Whether it’s batting, fielding, pitching or catching, there is leadership everywhere.”
Vrazel echoed Readicker’s sentiments.
“In the short time we have been back here, we set that as our motto this year,” Vrazel said. “I really do truly feel like we are getting there. We still have room to get closer and closer, but that’s what we are becoming.”
The Pioneers will open the season today at the three-day St. Mary’s Classic in San Antonio. TWU will face Texas-Permian Basin at 2 p.m. and the host Rattlers at 4 p.m.
TWU will open its home campaign with a 2 p.m. doubleheader against Newman (Kan.) next Friday.
“It’s a wonderful tournament that they have at St. Mary’s every year,” Bruister said. “One of the neat things is that they will have female umpires from all over the country. We are excited and we know it’s going to be a test of where we are. We know, win or lose, that there are going to be things we have to work on when we get back. We are tired of playing ourselves and seeing the same pitchers. We are ready to see some other folks out there.”
PATRICK HAYSLIP can be reached at 940-566-6873. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .