Looking back on TWU’s three-game sweep of Newman over the weekend, it’s difficult to say which was more impressive: the Pioneers’ solid pitching or their explosive offense.
TWU coach Richie Bruister certainly liked what he saw on the mound.
“I think it all starts with pitching,” he said. “That’s one area I’m really happy with. Brandie [Lander], Katie [Hines] and Larisa [Garcia] all did an extremely good job. We had some tough innings, but our pitchers just pitched out of it or the defense played out of it. That was good.”
Hines (1-1) struck out a career-high six batters in a complete-game 7-3 victory Friday that lowered her ERA to 2.33, third-best on the team. Earlier that day, Lander improved to 3-0 by allowing just four hits in a 10-1, run-rule win. On Saturday, Garcia went the distance and gave up just three hits in an 8-1 win that completed the sweep.
“Ninety percent of our game is pitching, and right now our top three pitchers are in the top 10 in the [Lone Star Conference] pitching categories,” Bruister said. “So I’m extremely proud of what those three have done.”
Bruister was equally pleased with his offense, which racked up 25 runs in the three-game series. Hines provided the spark Friday by going 5 for 7 with a home run and five RBIs. Kaylyn Vranich hit her second career pinch-hit home run Friday, and Lizzy Kelly and Bailey Vrazel each went 3 for 4 Saturday.
Opponents have compiled a 5.21 ERA against TWU while the Pioneers’ pitching staff has posted a 2.29 ERA this season.
“Last week we challenged our pitchers and defense,” Bruister said. “If someone makes a [defensive] mistake or someone gets a walk, let it go. Don’t make a bad pitch to the next batter. Make good pitches and get out of the inning. We did that last weekend.”
Heading to Leadoff Classic
Bruister said he’s honored to be taking his team to this weekend’s National Fastpitch Coaches Association Leadoff Classic in Tucson, Ariz., as the Pioneers were one of five teams to receive an invitation to the three-day event.
“It’s a big national tournament,” the fifth-year TWU coach said. “You had to go to regionals at least once in the last three years to get an invite to play in it, and we get to be a part of it. So it’s a great honor.”
The tournament begins Friday and concludes Sunday, with each team guaranteed to play a minimum of six games in bracket play. Other participants include Regis, New Haven, Grand Canyon and Nova Southwestern. The Pioneers will play Regis (11 a.m.) and New Haven (1 p.m.) in first-day action Friday.
“It’s going to be exciting to see different teams from Division II, some we’ve never faced before,” Bruister said.
TWU plays its next 10 games on the road in weekend tournaments. The Pioneers will play in the St. Edward’s tournament Feb. 23-24.
Fans on the road
Despite playing in Arizona this weekend, the Pioneers are expecting to have a small but strong group of fans cheering them on.
Bruister has relatives in the area who are planning to attend TWU’s games during the three-day tournament. Also, a former Pioneers graduate assistant coach now working in Arizona has told Bruister of plans to follow the Pioneers.
Bruister also expects a Tucson-area high schooler who has verbally committed to join the program to be there to cheer on the Pioneers.
Finally, the parents of senior infielder Jordan Readicker, who have followed the Pioneers throughout their daughter’s career, have indicated they’ll make the trip to Arizona to support the team.
Through five meets this season, TWU’s inconsistency seems to be more troubling to the Pioneers than any opponent they have faced.
“Overall, we aren’t doing all four events on the same day,” TWU coach Lisa Bowerman said. “Week to week, one or two events might be great, but one or two events might not be great. And the next week it might be two different events.
“The biggest struggle at this point is being able to hit our routines on all four events on the same day.”
Last week at the IGI Chicago Style Invitational, inconsistent performances on bars and balance beam factored heavily in the Pioneers’ third-place finish in the four-team competition. Simple mistakes, from wobbling on the bar to unstable landings, continue to affect the Pioneers’ scores.
“Bars and beam tend to be the most mentally challenging and physically demanding events as far as competition goes,” Bowerman said. “And some of it is inexperience in competing in those events. We’ve tried to give new people experience and opportunities in different lineups. We have the confidence in them to compete in those routines, but they may not quite be there.”
The challenges won’t get any easier Friday when the Pioneers join Arizona, BYU and Oklahoma for the Bart Conner Perfect 10 Challenge at the Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City.
Challenge ahead for TWU
With six regular-season games remaining and a conference tournament berth hanging in the balance, Pioneers coach Beth Jillson knows the challenge ahead.
“We’re beating ourselves, and I’ve got to figure out a way to correct that,” she said.
TWU (6-14, 4-10 Lone Star) is mired in a four-game losing streak, during which turnovers have plagued the team. The Pioneers coughed the ball up 30 times in a 59-49 loss to Texas A&M-Kingsville on Saturday. The 30 miscues were three shy of the team’s season high.
“It’s our decision-making,” Jillson said. “We have people open and we try to make the spectacular pass or thread the needle. And we have some where we’re just giving the ball back. Instead of making the easy pass, we make it hard on ourselves.
“We’ve got to play better as a team and we’ve got to make better decisions.”
During their four-game slide, the Pioneers have averaged 22 turnovers per game — three above their season average. The Pioneers are forcing opponents into an average of 18.7 turnovers, which has helped keep TWU in some close losses.
The Pioneers remain in eighth place in the conference standings, which represents the final spot earning a berth in the LSC tournament.
“The losses put us in a really bad spot,” Jillson said. “We’re going to have to respond. We have six games left, and we feel like we’re capable of beating anybody.”
The Pioneers will entertain West Texas A&M at 7 tonight with a “Play 4 Kay” promotion to help raise breast cancer awareness and research funds. The promotion is co-sponsored by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association and is the official charity of the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, named for the former North Carolina State coach who died in 2009. The Pioneers will wear special pink uniforms.