MADISON, S.D. - The 2012 softball season is right around the corner and this year's Dakota State University team is focused on making it deep in the post-season. The Trojans return six starters from a year ago including the NFCA West Region catcher of the year.
The Trojans despite coming off of a 14-25 season, in which they suffered two key injuries, expect to qualify for their first ever Association of Independent Institutions (A.I.I.) tournament, which will be held in Columbus, Ga. The Trojans will also be seeking their first national ranking during the 2012 campaign.
"We have very high expectations for this season," said head coach Ken Prorok. "We have a group of players that have worked very hard and are very talented. We have gotten great leadership by our returnees and the new players have shown the ability to compete at the collegiate level immediately. We have discussed our goals for this season as a team and if we stay healthy those goals are within our reach."
"I think the key to success for our team this season starts on the dirt," explained Prorok. "We have a great infield, and a very solid pitching staff, we will rely on these two aspects early in the season until our offense catches up."
"We have seven very talented new players, who have really brought a lot of competition at each position for us," said Prorok. "They are providing quality depth to our team and can provide consistency day-in and day-out. They are a good group of kids that work hard both on and off the field. They are going to bring a lot to this year's team."
Prorok, now in his 6th season at the helm of the program, has guided the Trojans to five consecutive conference tournaments (Dakota Athletic Conference); he has also coached 25 conference scholar-athletes, 8 All-conference selections, 5 Gold-Glove award winners, an Academic All-American and the schools only NFCA All-Region selection.
Following is a look at the 2012 Trojans by position:
Leading the Trojans in the circle this season will be sophomore transfer Taylor Mackey. Mackey has shown that she has the skill set to be the Trojans ace this spring. Last season she went 22-8 and was named as JUCO D-II All -Region selection, while pitching for Shane Bouman at Iowa Lakes C.C.
Backing up Mackey will be senior Alisa Balesteri. Last season Balesteri went 7-11 for the Trojans and saw 112 innings of work and posted a 3.85 ERA
Junior Ally McCracken, sophomore Brittany Tebbe, and Freshman Brittany Hill will round out the pitching staff this year. McCracken is a transfer from North Dakota School of Science where she went 4-6 last season. Last season Tebbe went 2-1 for the Trojans while logging 36 innings of work. Hill a hard throwing right-hander from Chino, Calif. will see most of her action this season at third base.
Behind the plate the Trojans will be led by the 2011 NFCA All-Region catcher of the year Emily Kulp. Last season Kulp hit .327 for the Trojans while driving in 25 runs, not only is Kulp an offensive threat, but she does a great job handling the defensive duties behind the plate as illustrated by her .987 fielding percentage last season.
Also returning for the Trojans behind the plate is Jessica McLane, McLane saw limited action behind the plate last season as she served as the teams Designated Player the majority of the year, however she is a viable option for the coaching staff.
A new face behind the plate this year is redshirt freshman Chelsea Kruse. Kruse redshirted last year to work on her overall skill set; she is a speedy and tough ball player who will primarily see time in the outfield and as a pinch runner this season.
The Trojan infield has no shortage of depth or talent this season. Returning at first base is senior Leslie Neiman, Neiman a 2010 Gold Glove selection is the lone returning starter on the dirt but she is accompanied by what may be the most athletic group of middle infielders to play at Dakota State.
Juniors Renaye Gamson and Steph Kruggel will pair up with Alisa Balesteri to work the middle for the Trojans. Gamson a transfer from Cal State University - Eastbay will be the everyday shortstop for the Trojans while Kruggel, an outstanding athlete who is also an all-conference volleyball standout will play second base as well as see time in the outfield this year.
The "hot corner" will be anchored primarily by freshman Brittany Hill. Hill is a strong young lady who possesses a very lively bat and a nose for the ball.
Junior Jessica McLane and freshman Lexy Miller may also platoon on the corners for the Trojans as the season progresses.
Entering this season the Trojan outfield is marred by uncertainty and a slew of changes. Freshman Lexy Miller has shown the best chance of being an everyday starter in the outfield to date. Miller one of five Canadian players to play for the Trojans during the past three years will be a corner outfielder this season.
Vying for the other spots in the outfield will be junior Ally McCracken, sophomore Brittany Tebbe, redshirt freshman Chelsea Kruse, and a variety of non-starting infielders.
Junior Jessica McLane was the Trojans main DP last year. Last season McLane finished with a .364 batting average and drove in 23 runs while slugging a .561. She has grown in her approach and has found a renewed work ethic which will serve her well this season.
Prorok feels that this team has three or four hitters who could serve as the DP on any given day but likes what he has in McLane.
With the move from the Dakota Athletic Conference (DAC) to the Association of Independent Institutions (A.I.I.), the Trojans do not play a traditional conference schedule so some of the "regulars" are not seen on this year's schedule.
The Trojans open the 2012 campaign at the Snowbird Invitational in Myrtle Beach, S.C., for the second straight year; the Trojans than return home for a double header on St. Patrick's Day, March 17 against Northwestern College (Iowa).
Dakota State will then hit the road on March 24 and 25 and head to Nebraska where they will take on the College of St. Mary in a four game set in Omaha, Neb.
The Trojans than head home for a quick two game stop to play former DAC rival Mayville State University on March 28, before heading back down the interstate to take part in the Morningside (Sioux City, Iowa) Tournament on March 31 and April 1.
Dakota State will host their first NCAA Division II opponent since 2007, when the University of Sioux Falls comes to town on April 3 for a doubleheader.
The Trojans will have Easter weekend off before returning to action on April 12; and kicking off what will be a jam packed 12-day stretch where the Trojans will play 14 games concluding with a trip to York, Neb. to partake in the York College Triangular where they will face York College and Hillsdale College (Okla.).
On April 26, the Trojans will anxiously await to find out if they have qualified to partake in the A.I.I. conference tournament and a trip to Columbus. Ga.
Ken Prorok, Dakota State University Head Softball Coach
Nick Huntimer, Dakota State University Sports Information Director