Jan. 21, 2003
Anyone in the VIP room at the Ferrell Center on that disappointing Sunday afternoon late last spring would think May 12, 2002 is a date Baylor softball players and coaches would just as soon forget. After all, it was on that day that the Lady Bears' hopes and dreams of earning the program's first-ever NCAA Regional berth were dashed in the amount of time it took ESPN's Robin Roberts to read 48 so-called more-deserving names.
Forget about May 12, 2002? Fuhgeddaboutit.
Instead, the memory of that day has been Baylor's driving force over the past eight-plus months. And to make sure the sting of that disappointment is not remembered, the Lady Bears printed the date on the backs of their practice jerseys.
"We bring it up. We make it an issue. It motivates me daily," head coach Glenn Moore said last fall. "Judging from the intense workouts and the attitudes on this team, I think it's still on everyone's mind. We still have a feeling that we have to prove people wrong and show people that we deserved to be there."
The road to recognition is sure to be a long and winding one. Proving one's self must be done over the length of the season. And while it is important for the Lady Bears to feed off the memory of disappointment, last year has little to do with the new season on the horizon.
On paper, though, Baylor is loaded. Only one starter graduated last season, and Moore's second full signing class gave the Lady Bears more speed and more power.
And, of course, there's the Baylor pitching staff. Arguably the best complete staff in the nation, the Lady Bears finished sixth nationally with a 0.98 team ERA. Baylor was also the only team in the nation with three pitchers in the top 35 nationally in ERA. Cristin Vitek was 11th at 0.89, Joni Miller was 30th at 1.05, and Katie Decker was 35th at 1.08.
Miller missed most of the fall due to an inflamed nerve in her pitching elbow. The injury kept her sidelined until January. However, Moore said not having Miller was a blessing in disguise.
"Joni's injury required that we pitch Cristin and Katie against the better teams," Moore said. "They stepped up and had great performances."
In the fall of 2001, Moore and his staff had to deal the struggles of 10 newcomers. That meant 10 people learning a new system that the seven returning players had not yet fully mastered. This autumn, things were different.
"We were able to incorporate more of our game plan and our philosophy because of the intelligence level of the team," Moore said. "We had four new kids and the bulk of our team already knew the system. The new kids picked up on the philosophy quickly.
"It has allowed us to move on to more detailed instruction with individuals. Last year we were spending more time in team instruction. This year we've been able to spend more time with individual instruction. It's been a huge advantage. We've been able to cover more ground than I thought we would."
Baylor led the Big 12 Conference in team ERA last season. However, the Lady Bears finished last in batting average and next-to-last in fielding percentage. Moore expects to see vast improvement in both areas.
Defensively, that could mean new faces in new positions. Look for Danelle Arnold to see less time behind the plate and more time in the outfield. Look for Carrie Leerberg to see less time in the outfield and more time in the infield. Look for Kelly Levesque to see time both in the infield and in the outfield, where last season she was a first-team all-Big 12 and second-team NFCA all-Midwest Region selection. Look for Stephanie Pomes, who Moore says is the team's best defensive player, to see more time behind the plate.
However, do not forget about the talented newcomers. Freshmen Harmony Schwethelm and Kelly Osburn, and junior college transfer Amber Daniel could see immediate playing time. Schwethelm prepped at Smithson Valley High School in San Antonio, Texas, and Osburn attended Elkins High School in Missouri City, Texas. Daniel, a product of Vanguard High School in Waco, Texas, earned first-team Junior College all-America honors last season.
"Harmony Schwethelm is going to play, whether it's shortstop or outfield," Moore said. "She gained ground at shortstop, and if I had to select a starter there it would be between Kim Wilmoth, Kelly Levesque and Harmony. Right now, I'd have to say Harmony probably won that position. I've got to see more before we make that decision. Kim had a tremendous fall offensively, so she's got to be in the lineup, as well. That's been our biggest concern, the shortstop position."
Moore said nearly every player had tremendous fall seasons offensively. He said given the lack of offensive productivity last season, the ability to hit is a major determining factor to starting jobs this season.
"We told the players coming in that if we're on an equal playing field defensively, we may lose a little bit defensively as long as someone is swinging the bat," Moore said.
Despite that philosophy, Moore is confident the team is improved defensively.
"There were two problems last season," he said. "We had far too many mistakes at shortstop, and we were slow on the corners. We're going to be faster on the corners. We're going to be able to get to bunts and still hold a strong defensive position at the same time. And we're going to improve at shortstop. Whether we're going to be where I want us to be, only time will tell, but we're going to be better."
Much like in the infield, Baylor has the luxury of several possible combinations in the outfield. Moore said the Lady Bears could have the fastest outfield in the Big 12, given what combination is used. He said who plays where in the outfield will largely depend on who plays shortstop.
If that person is not Levesque, look for the speedy junior from Sun City, Calif., to patrol center field. Levesque led the team in batting average last season and ranked in the top 10 of six offensive categories in the Big 12.
Meanwhile, senior Sarah Caudle is a mainstay in the outfield. The 2000 second-team all-Big 12 honoree earned all-Big 12 Tournament honors last year and hit .323 on the season.
"I feel very good about this team's competitiveness," Moore said. "A lot of things are starting to fall into place. We're beginning to see who can do what. A lot of our blanks have been filled. There's one thing I'm sure about: This team will compete."
Baylor opens the season Jan. 31-Feb. 2 with the second annual Getterman Classic. The following weekend, and then Baylor travels to Baton Rouge, La., for the Tiger Classic. That will be Moore's first trip back to Louisiana State since he left Baton Rouge for Waco in the summer of 2000. Baylor faces perennial national powers LSU and DePaul at the Tiger Classic. The Lady Bears also host the Compass Bank Invitational in late February, and they make tournament trips to Louisiana-Monroe (Feb. 14-16), Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (Feb. 28-March 2), and Hawai'i (March 6-9).
Moore said the 2003 schedule as a whole is more challenging than last year's, especially early. He also said the Lady Bears will be ready.
"We're a stronger team this year," Moore said. "We're faster and we're more mature. Where we competed in hopes of beating teams that were better than us, we've narrowed that gap between ourselves and the more talented teams in the country. We're going to be able to do more things this year that we couldn't do last year, and that's going to give us a better chance at success."
After going 46-18 last season, Baylor was not invited to the NCAA Tournament. This year, the NCAA field expands to 64 teams. That, coupled with the improvements made by his team, leaves Moore with little doubts about Baylor's chances of a postseason appearance.
"Some time during the season last year, I said I would be very disappointed if we did not attend a regional," Moore said. "And I was highly disappointed. But this year is a year that we will attend a regional."