Kacy Tillery is the most excited she's been about her Kansas City Kansas Community College softball team in her 16 years as head coach and who can blame her?
Her 2017 Blue Devils are playing their first season on a brand new state-of-the-art all-weather field, the only one of its kind in the Jayhawk Conference. The Blue Devil pitching staff is the deepest it's ever been and position players are at least two-deep at virtually every spot. The only thing it lacks is experience.
"I'm really excited," admits Tillery. "Although we lack experience, the pitching staff is easily the deepest we've had. We also have a lot of players who can play different positions and the depth that if someone is not getting the job done, we have someone else who is right on their heels and can step right in."
The new all-weather field has already paid early dividends. "We've been outside more since getting back from the semester break than we've ever been, which I hope gives us a leg up on everyone else," says Tillery. That's good because the Blue Devils open the season Wednesday when they host North Central in a doubleheader starting at 1 p.m. It's the first of five straight home contests including Southeast Feb. 17, Maple Woods Feb. 23, Iowa Central Feb. 24 and State Fair 28.
The Blue Devils return only two full-time starters from last year's 25-21 team, outfielder LaTisha Thomas and third baseman Kaylynn Stratton; and two part-time starters, infielder Sam Sudac and catcher Amy Grace-Wilson. But there's 13 freshmen and a bevy of transfers chomping at the bit to step into starting roles.
Four pitchers are in contention for starting berths – sophomores Megan Sumonja of Lawrence and Megan Mason of Belton and freshmen Shannon Greene of McLouth and Cheyenna Owens of Pleasant Ridge. Sumonja is a transfer from Barton County where she pitched sparingly last season while Mason took a redshirt season last year to undergo elbow surgery. Greene is also a transfer from Saint Mary but has not pitched collegiately.
"The good thing is we don't have to rely on just one of the four to be No. 1," says Tillery. "They each provide versatility in their roles and the ability to be a starter but also all can come in relief as needed and are happy to fill any role they are needed on any given day." Two freshmen, Aubrie Sutton of Turner, and southpaw Shelby Turner of McLouth, will also provide relief.
Catching will also be solid with the return of Amy-Grace Wilson, who hit .450 in 23 games last season, and freshman Grace Grosvenor of Lee's Summit. "Both have great minds for the game and communicate and work well with the pitchers," says Tillery.
The battles for infield and outfield starting jobs are as heavily contested as the pitching. Two freshman, Mikaela Hoffart of Salina and Allison Kasick, a Basehor-Linwood grad who transferred from Highland, both have good power and are also possibilities as designated hitters. Pitcher Cheyenna Owens also is a possibility.
Sam Sudac, who hit .200 in 37 games last year, returns at second base where she's being challenged by a pair of freshmen, Natalie Cowan of Basehor-Linwood, and Shannon Brown of Atchison, who transferred from Kansas Wesleyan. Candice Jennings, a sophomore from Basehor-Linwood who transferred from Neosho County, has the inside track at shortstop over Shannon Brown and Taylor Hall, a freshman from Piper.
Katherine Stringer, a sophomore from Basehor-Linwood who saw action in six games last year, is being challenged by Piper freshman Jennifer Mullins and Natalie Cowan at third base. "We may use Cowan at any of three positions because of her offense and speed," says Tillery. Bryanna Swan, who is coming off surgery, and southpaw Megham Smith of Paola will also see action.
Three veterans could start in the outfield – LaTisha Thomas of Highland Park who hit a torrid .397 and stole 26 bases in 28 attempts in the leadoff position last season; Hannah Bishop, who hit .333 in 19 games; and Turner's Kaylynn Stratton, who batted .327 in 42 games, mostly at third base. However, they have to hold off McKenzie Hersh, an all-region pick at Fort Scott last season, and Cowan. "Any combination of that group we play will be the fastest set of outfielders we've ever had," says Tillery.
With the new all-weather turf, Tillery expects the defense to be a strength and speed should be outstanding. "We do have some power but we may also go to an unconventional lineup to use the short game to our advantage," says Tillery, who is being assisted by Tiffany Jennings in her third season.
Kansas City Kansas Community College's new softball complex boasts the only all-weather surface in the Jayhawk Conference. (KCKCC Photo by Alan Hoskins)