Perry softball head coach Tina Kenney is in a position most coaches would relish.
The Jayettes lose only one senior and return a lineup loaded with big-hit potential with every position save first base staffed by a player with at least one — and in many cases, several — years of experience at said defensive spot. She also has Class 3A’s second-leading strikeout artist returning for her fourth full season in the ring.
Kenney’s main problem? She coaches in the Raccoon River Conference, clearly the most powerful league, top-to-bottom, in Class 4A.
“There is not much you can do about who you play, so you’ve got to take care of your own business,” she said. “That’s what we have been focusing on, both last year and again so far in our practices this year: We have to battle in every situation and play hard all the time. Against our schedule there is no room for error, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be successful, because we can and I think we know we can.”
Perry was a deceptive 15-19 last season. The 2015 campaign started ugly and stayed that way for weeks as the team struggled to a 2-10 start. Five games later Perry was 6-11, and while the team was only one game over .500 (9-8) down the stretch, those games were largely against the heart of a rugged schedule.
Emma Olejniczak (12-18, 2.16 ERA) threw all but 27.1 of the team’s innings last year, striking out 261 in 198 frames while walking only 54. She yielded 151 hits and 110 runs, but 49 of those (45 percent) were unearned, and the Jayettes will need to lower their 64 errors to increase their star hurler’s effectiveness.
One irritant that seemingly refuses to go away is Perry’s unfortunate penchant for allowing runs to score with two outs in the inning, a problem Kenney is keenly aware of.
“It probably costs us half of our losses each year,” she said. “Getting out of innings is exactly the kind of mental toughness issue I want to see us improve on. You have to get out of innings, period, and that again comes down to winning individ.ual battles and making the routine play.”
Perry scored 109 runs on 212 hits in 2015, with 47 of those for extra bases as the Jayettes tallied 32 doubles and seven triples while swatting eight home runs. The team hit .240, a number that, like the 156 strikeout/69 walk statistic, will need to improve for the squad to flip their record to a winning one.
The Jayettes did not run often, but were effective when they did, swiping 28-of-29 bases.
Maddie West will step into the starting role at first base, with Sidney Vancil (19 hits, 13 runs) returning at second base. Jo Diw (.304, 28 hits, 3 HR, 15 RBI, 20 runs scored) gives Perry pop in the lineup and good range at shortstop, with Maddy Jans returning at third base.
Rachel Kinney (.327, 36 hits, 16 RBI) returns in right field, with Victoria Hegstrom (17 hits, 3 HR, 12 RBI) bringing a defensive presence to center field again this year while Alyssa Kruger (.302, 29 hits, four triples, 11 walks and just three strikeouts) is back to patrol left field.
Brooke Huntington will again handle the catching duties for Olejniczak, who hit .342 with 38 hits and 10 doubles — all team-highs — last year.
“I like our team, like our makeup and our potential,” Kenney said. “I look at last year and wonder how it would have gone had we not started so slow. What if those losses had been wins — think of what kind of confidence that would have given us and what we might have done. I hope we get a chance to see that this year.”
Perry travels to Des Moines Christian tonight to open the season, with North Polk to visit the PAC Tuesday and last year’s state runner-up Winterset coming to Perry Wednesday.