Entering his 20th season manning the Labette Cardinals’ dugout, softball head coach Ryan Phillips has shrunk the circle around the program.
Going into the 2023 campaign, Labette has 18 players on its roster.
“We’re always trying to improve. We’re a little short on numbers this year by design,” Phillips said. “We had some animosity amongst the team last year. You always want to have healthy competition and a team that has good chemistry. Our biggest demise was that we needed everybody to understand their role. So we minimized our roster size.”
Labette, which started the 2022 season ranked in the top-10 of the NJCAA polls, finished one game above .500 last spring with a 25-24 record. The Cardinals start 2023 unranked.
“We didn’t play a bunch of JV teams like some of the other schools,” Phillips said. “They’re so worried about their ranking that they play JV teams to jack up their win-loss records. We only had four losses to non-ranked opponents last year.”
The Cardinals were pegged to finish fourth in the preseason KJCCC poll, behind top-pick Cowley, Kansas City Kansas and Johnson County.
Offensively, the Cardinals were respectable with top-60 finishes in the country in runs, batting average, slugging percentage and RBIs.
“This year may be our biggest and best mix of good speed and good pop,” Phillips said. “We have girls that can swing it and put the ball in the gap. We should be putting up lots of runs and hitting the ball well day-to-day. We also want to execute our short game.”
Captaining Labette’s offense is third-year player Winter Snyder.
A returning NJCAA All-American, Snyder led the Cardinals in batting average (.417), slugging percentage (.788), home runs (10), RBIs (48) and runs (55).
Snyder’s move to the leadoff spot last spring put afterburners on an already dangerous lineup. This spring, Snyder is expected to join her teammates in the field after almost exclusively slotting as the designated player last year.
“We want to have her out on the field,” Philips said. “Winter may play first base, second base or even third base. We want to get some bats in the lineup. We’re still debating on whether or not we want to keep her in the top spot or maybe move her down to the two or three spot.”
Fellow third-year athlete and catcher Hayley Bonython, a native of Australia, is expected to boom this spring.
Bonython finished last year as the Cardinals’ starting catcher, registering 11 of her 13 hits in the final three weeks of the season.
“She had the best fall of anybody and was the most consistent with her power,” Phillips said. “She hit some balls that were pushing 250 feet. She’s done a tremendous job of improving her skills.”
Labette’s pitching staff will be a focal point. The Cardinals’ posted a team ERA of 4.81 in 2022 — elite teams normally operate in the twos or threes.
Raven Hough brings back the most experience after leading the Cardinals in starts with 14. She posted a 10-7 record with 31 strikeouts and a 4.69 ERA.
“Raven’s confidence has gotten better and she has more movement in her pitches,” Phillips said. “She’s been working on spotting balls. She’s also picked up a mile or two in velocity.”
Ellie Facklam, a utility player that pitched 65.2 innings while also batting .329, serves as a glue stick for Phillips’ lineup.
“With her competitive nature, she does a tremendous job and works at a high pace,” Phillips said. “None of our pitchers will be high strikeout pitchers, but they’ll keep the defense involved with plays they can make.”
Defensively, the Cardinals were a middle-of-the-pack squad in fielding percentage in 2022 — leaps and bounds ahead of a 2021 squad that committed the fifth-most errors in the country.
Keira Jackson, another third-year athlete, reinforces the outfield for Labette.
“She may get the best read off the bat of any outfielder we’ve had,” Phillips said. “She has the high potential to be a great player if she can stay consistent offensively.”
The rest of the Labette roster is comprised of Kaila Kaahu (Hau’ula, Hawaii), Elle Slaughter (Pittsburg), Emma Welch (Webb City), Maggie McKee (Springfield, Missouri), Katie Crowe (Carthage, Missouri), Addison Fowler (Fort Scott), Lili Graue (Neosho, Missouri), Allison Plumlee (Carl Junction, Missouri), Abby Tubach (Strong City), Hailey Benson (Coffeyville), Jayden Willard (Mound City), Heidi Noisey (Moore, Oklahoma) and Lexi Miller (Wehaton, Missouri).
In a milestone watch, Phillips is 27 wins away from notching 500 for his career.
As for the outlook for the Cardinals, familiar faces carrying the baton give credence to another competitive year.
“If we stay healthy, we’ve got a chance of being really good,” Phillips said. “With us shorter on numbers, if we have an injury or a sickness that takes some girls out, we could be a team that’s putting too many bandages on holes. We have to make sure we’re still productive. We’ve got a shot to make a run at it.”
Labette’s season begins on Tuesday with a trip to Hutchinson. The Cardinals’ home opener against Iowa Central is on Saturday.
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