Even with the program's single-season home run leader Kayli Schurman sidelined for the year with a shoulder injury, Northwest Missouri State's softball team is currently tracking as one of the MIAA's top offensive units.
The Bearcats' .334 team average is second-best in the MIAA and trumps last year's .257 mark. Northwest also leads the MIAA in on-base percentage at .412.
Pure-hitting second baseman Hailee Hendricks heads up the attack with a .434 average that is second- best in the MIAA. Behind her are six other regulars hitting .300 or better.
Three of those—outfielder Candace Miller, shortstop Stephanie Price and designated player Madison Jones—are new additions to a senior-laden team and have collectively helped fill the production void left by Schurman.
"Obviously, there's still a hole with Kayli out, but it sure helps when people are getting on base," said Northwest Missouri State head coach Ryan Anderson. "When other people around you are hitting, that helps other people because they're not having to carry the load."
Miller, a left-handed hitting transfer from Oklahoma Panhandle, is second on the team with a .391 average and leads the Bearcats with 34 base hits, only three of which are non-singles. Jones, a 5-4 freshman from Omaha, Neb., is batting .313 with four doubles.
Price carries a .366 average and leads the Bearcats with six home runs hitting out of the clean-up spot occupied formerly by Schurman.
The rangy and strong-armed Jefferson CC transfer has also improved Northwest's infield defense and allowed last year's starter at short—Jefferson product Rachael Schmitz—to make a need-based move over to first base.
"We really had kind of a hole at first base, and I asked Rachael before the year started to see if she could handle first," said Anderson. "She started working there and has made a good transition. Infield-wise, we've been playing well on defense."
Northwest ranks second in the MIAA with a .968 fielding percentage.
Creger in top form
After an injury-affected junior campaign that saw her ERA rise by more than a run per game, Northwest Missouri State senior Jenna Creger is back to pitching like an ace again.
Northwest's all-time strikeouts leader is 7-3 on the season and sports a miniscule 1.38 ERA that is third-lowest in the MIAA.
Opponents are hitting only .181 against Creger and she's striking out more than one batter per inning.
Creger is coming off her best start of the year against Northern State in which she allowed only two hits and one run over seven innings and retired the final 18 batters.
Anderson is of the belief that Creger will only get better as the season progresses and the team can practice outdoors more often.
Page 2 of 3 - "I think for all of our pitchers right now the hardest thing has been not being outside consistently," said Anderson. "Jenna was tearing it up last year before she had an injury. I think she could be back there."
Bearcats come alive
At a critical spot in their season, Northwest Missouri State's baseball team delivered three much-needed wins over the weekend in a dominating series sweep of Truman State.
The Bearcats (9-16, 7-13) won all three games by at least five runs and played some of their best baseball of the season.
They averaged over 10 runs per game, gave up a total of 11 and committed just one error the entire series.
"I thought we played really well from top to bottom," said Northwest Missouri State head coach Darin Loe. "It's a step in the right direction."
One of the more encouraging developments from the series was the awakening of the team's three slumping all-conference hitters—Ryan Abernathy, Eric McGlauflin and Eric Swain.
All three entered the weekend with sub-.260 averages, but showed signs of breaking out by going a combined 11-31 (.354).
Abernathy, the team's lead-off man, had at least one hit in all three games and finished the series with four, raising his average to .269.—still more than 100 points off last year's .378 clip.
A pinch-hitter in game one, McGlauflin started both games of Saturday's doubleheader and produced two hits and a home run in each one. They were his third and fourth homers of the season, making him the new team leader.
Swain contributed three hits in the doubleheader, including two in the second game with three RBIs.
"They're swinging with a clear head now," said Loe of the hitting trio. "We expect from here on out for them to be productive hitters in our lineup."
Building on the the momentum from the series sweep of Truman State will be tough given what's directly ahead on Northwest Missouri State's schedule.
The Bearcats pay a visit to No. 20 Missouri Western today for a doubleheader at 2 p.m. in St. Joseph that completes the four-game season series.
Western swept a doubleheader in Maryville last week by scores of 10-4 and 7-2 and used a pair of five-run innings to blow each game open.
The Griffons (19-4, 14-1) reside atop the MIAA and had won 17 straight before dropping a game to Central Oklahoma over the weekend.
They lead the entire nation in hitting with a .389 team average and their seven top hitters are all at .368 or better.
Michael Schulze (.473) is the MIAA leader in batting average, while Jimmy Smelcer (.451) is third. Also ranking in the top 10 are Grant Fink (.440), Kyle Simpson (.433) and Bubba Dotson (.429).
Page 3 of 3 - "They're swinging the bats as good as anyone I've seen," said Loe. "If we can limit the big innings, we'll have an opportunity to win the games. At the end of the day, you got to keep the ball down, get outs when they give it to you and not give away free bases."
Northwest will call upon 6-4 junior Austin Warren and 6-1 freshman Rob Henrichs to slow down the MIAA's hottest lineup.
Warren (1-3) started the second game of last week's doubleheader with Western. He struck out eight in six innings, but gave up seven runs and 12 hits.
This will be Henrichs' first start of the season. He's made three relief appearances covering seven innings and has a 7.71 ERA.