by Andrew Goodwin, Sports Information Assistant
SPOKANE, Wash. – Whitworth softball won its first Northwest Conference championship in school history in 2015 and has not lost the trophy since. The three-time defending NWC champions reloaded and reshuffled for 2018 and are ready to defend their title once again.
Four 2017 All-NWC honorees highlight the 2018 team, including first team selection Michelle Silva and freshman of the year Kinsey McNaught. An influx of freshman talent and the arrival of a 2016 all-conference player augment the returners to make the Bucs a deep and dangerous squad in 2018.
Conference coaches agree. The recently released NWC coaches poll labeled the Pirates as frontrunners to take home the title for the fourth year in a row.
"We have depth up-and-down the lineup, as well as defensively," seventh year head coach Cristal Brown said. "We're excited about both of our returning pitchers, and two freshmen who will have a chance to make an impact this season."
The depth will be helpful for Brown and assistant coaches Randy Clark and Bob Castle as they attempt to replace the production of four all-conference players who graduated last Spring.
In the circle, the Bucs lost NWC Pitcher of the year Madi Perez to graduation, but return Ashley Trueblood and Megan Truesdale. Trueblood served as Whitworth's Game 2 starter last season and was a key part of its success, finishing with a 3.54 ERA in 87 innings. Truesdale struck out 4.35 batters per seven innings in her debut season and ended the year with a 2-2 record. The pair of returners are joined by freshmen Madelyn Carlson and and Kaylee Rosenbaum.
The group of pitchers will toss to an experienced backstop in senior catcher Allie Rude. Rude caught all 48 games last season and earned an All-NWC honorable mention selection. The veteran backstop is known for her excellent defense behind the plate.
A reshuffled and deep infield will cover the rest of the dirt. The lone Pirate who remains in her position from last season will be second baseman Desi Graham. The junior started at second in each of the last two seasons and posted .998 and .938 fielding percentages as a freshman and sophomore.
Graham will have a new double play partner in 2018 with All-NWC first team choice Michelle Silva transitioning from third base to shortstop. As a sophomore, Silva led Whitworth in home runs (8) and stolen bases (17). She also posted a .375 batting average in the cleanup spot.
Freshmen Brynn Radke and Sara Gayer will provide Brown with excellent depth in the middle infield. Gayer was the Blossom Valley Athletic League MVP last season, and Radke was a three-time All-KingCo (3A) choice at Juanita High School.
Whitworth is bolstered on the corners by the return of 2016 All-NWC choice Chelsey Hayes at first base. Another junior, Hayes returns to the Pirates after taking a year off to focus on her Nursing degree in 2017. During her all-conference campaign two years prior, Hayes led the Bucs in batting average (.424), runs batted in (32), and hits (56)
"If Chelsey can pick up where she left off in 2016, she gives us a bat that is one of the best in the conference," Brown said.
Rheanne Lewis joins Hayes at first base after hitting .270 with 6 extra base hits last year. The sophomore will take on a utility role and could see time in multiple positions.
Brown has several options to replace Silva at third base. Sophomore Logan Miller hit .275 and stole 7 bases last season in a utility role. Maria Smith would bring 19 games of experience, and Carlson played at the position in high school as well.
The loss of all-conference center fielder Shannon Wessel means the Bucs will have reshuffling to do in the outfield as well.
Kinsey McNaught, the 2017 Northwest Conference Freshman of the Year, will move from right field to center where her excellent speed will allow McNaught to cover plenty of ground. The sophomore hit .384 with 10 stolen bases and a .435 on base percentage last season.
As with third base, Brown has plenty of options to fill-in right and left field. Her most experienced options are senior Kelsey Downey and junior Morgan Portlock. Downey saw time in 35 games last season and hit .224 with two home runs. Portlock played in 18 games, scored 6 runs and drove in another pair.
The Pirates also return McKenna Holmes and Natalie Edlin in the corner outfield spots. Both saw limited action last season as pinch-runners or hitters. Tatum Fell and Kaylie Lowrey should compete for playing time in both spots as well.
Whitworth opens its season Jan. 26 when it travels to California for three doubleheaders. The season's first pitch will be at Chapman before the Pirates take on La Verne and Occidental the following days. The Northwest Conference opener will be Feb. 24 at George Fox.