Grayson College maintained softball respectability in Mike McBrayer’s first season at the helm. However, the Lady Vikings enter 2017 with almost a completely new cast.
The Lady Vikings were 26-25 a year ago, continuing a three-year run of above-.500 softball, and cracked the NJCAA Top 20 poll for the first time in a decade. But Grayson finished 12-20 in North Texas Junior College Athletic Conference play, falling short of qualifying for the NJCAA Region 5 tournament for the first time since 2013.
“It’s hard to stay hot for that amount of time, and I think our girls ran out of gas,” McBrayer said. “It was a winning season, but we considered it a loss. There was nobody pacified with going one game over .500, I can promise you.
“But we’ve regrouped. We’ve got 18 new faces out of 20, so we’re brand-new, but we had a successful fall and we’re excited about this season.”
The new season opens for the Lady Vikings today with a home doubleheader against Kilgore College at 1 p.m.
Fans at today’s opener will behold the first of several stages of improvements to Lady Vikings Field, which is an artificially-turfed foul area. A new two-story press box and bleacher system are in the works for as soon as this season ends. Eventually the entire playing surface will be turf, with the infield first and the outfield later.
Heavy turnover is the nature of the business in junior college sports, and this year is no exception for Grayson. With only two returnees from last year, McBrayer recruited hard, bringing in a large number of freshmen with a few transfers mixed in.
“I think the major difference between this bunch and the bunch last year is that last year’s bunch had talent, but those girls weren’t the type of girls who played all summer and winter,” McBrayer said. “They were great athletes who probably played several sports in high school. These girls have dedicated their lives to softball and played every holiday, every weekend.”
Perhaps the biggest hole in the roster was left by the departure of pitcher Megan Rosewell, who started 36 of 51 games last spring and was 22-14 with a 2.88 earned-run average. Rosewell used up her juco eligibility and now pitches for Rogers State (Okla.).
“We’ve brought in four new pitchers, a couple from Oklahoma and one that’s pretty local,” McBrayer said.
The newcomers in the circle include Kylie Williams of Durant, Olivia Gutierrez of Lompoc, Calif., Samantha Loving of Las Vegas; and Tana Davis of Stonewall, Okla., who’s pitched in the state tournament in all four of her high school years.
Shelby Fleming, an all-state player from Asher, Okla., will start behind the plate. McBrayer said Fleming can play several other positions, including first base and outfield.
Along with all the freshmen are sprinkled five sophomores in all, including three transfers. One of those is Jacye Grimm, a transfer from Northern Oklahoma-Enid who McBrayer said will be a major factor with the bat. McBrayer said Grimm’s power fits his offensive philosophy perfectly, and she will bat in the four-hole.
At the top of the lineup, freshman shortstop Jodie Hill comes in with a ton of stolen bases from her high school playing career. In 20 fall games for the Lady Vikings, McBrayer said Hill was perfect in steals, and has good range and a good arm in the field.
“If the win’s blowing in, they can beat you with their legs,” McBrayer said. “If the wind’s blowing out, they can beat you with their bats. I like the balance of power and speed that we have.”
Sophomore Clarissa Peters, one of the two holdovers from 2016, will start at first base for the Lady Vikings, and Morgan Lewis, a freshman from Allen, will start at second base. Samantha Loving and Lauren Humphers will work at third base with Hill at short.
The other returning sophomore on the team is Taylor Landrum, who is back in centerfield. Freshman Marcella McKinney, who hit 18 homers last year at Broken Arrow, Okla., will play left, and Baylee Goolsby, a sophomore transfer from Lubbock Christian, will be in right.
The NTJCAC schedule begins March 1 with a twin bill at Weatherford College. But the Lady Vikings will have plenty of preparation with a whopping 27 games scheduled in the month of February, including a nice 10-game home stand from Feb. 6-15. McBrayer said last year’s road-heavy start wore on his team and may have contributed to the poor conference showing.
“We’re going to get out of the box and go hard and try to get into a groove,” McBrayer said. “When conference settles in, we’re going to play conference games and concentrate on nothing else.”
Grayson will get a quick early test from McLennan Community College, which is No. 5 in the NJCAA preseason poll and will visit Lady Vikings Field March 8.
“If they don’t freeze in the headlights (today), and we can go out and have a pitcher paint a couple of zeroes and get through the lineup the first time, then I think we’ll flip that switch,” McBrayer said. “When you have five freshmen on the field, sometimes six, it can be interesting. We’re cautiously optimistic.”