Just by looking at their record or watching them play, one would not think the Golden Eagles are improved in year two under coach Wendy Hogue. Though they have lost four series’ to date, a closer look at this softball team yields more positive results.
“We have to trust the work that we do and make it happen,” Hogue said. “[We have] to quit thinking about it and quit stressing.”
The Golden Eagles brought in Hogue to turn around a team that went 49-106 overall and 18-51 in conference play in the three seasons prior to Hogue’s hire as coach. In just two years, she has raised the USM winning percentage from 32 percent from 2011-2014 to 40 percent in her two years since the 2015 season.
Although it may not seem like much, Hogue has made marked improved on these Golden Eagles, specifically in recruiting.
First-year Golden Eagle Tori Dew leads the team in batting average, hits, doubles and walks for the team and is tied for the team lead in hits with at least 40 at-bats. Dew has become a valuable asset in Hogue’s second- year lineup batting second. Dew is not only the offensive leader of the team, but can be perceived as the leader on the diamond.
“We can’t do without a Tori Dew,” Hogue said. “She is head and shoulders above the rest as far as leadership goes.”
However, as the team’s offensive dynamic goes, Dew is not enough.
Take away Dew’s statistics in some of those categories, and the team looks starkly different on offense.
For instance, take away Dew’s 38 hits on the season and the team’s batting average drops from a .276 down to a .238. This average would rank in the bottom 35 teams in the nation, according to the NCAA.
What ends up perplexing the Golden Eagles’ statistic output is that their opponents are getting the same opportunities as USM with a ratio of 950 to their opponents’ 979 possible at- bats. The question is how do you improve the batter’s percentages at the plate?
“You got to swing at good pitches, you got to swing at strikes,” said first-year assistant coach Coy Adkins. “Try to eliminate the anxiety at the plate. Anxiety is usually a negative thought process.”
Only three Golden Eagles are batting .300 or better with at least 40 at-bats, out of a possible 11. Essentially almost a fourth of the lineup may count as a predetermined out at one point or another in the game. That will not get it done against quality opponents.
“The last few games, the bottom of our lineup has been struggling,” Hogue said. “But, this is Division one softball; people make good plays.”
The rest of the rotation is led by Morgan McKeever and Katie Cleary, who hit her third home run of the season against Western Kentucky on Sunday. These two are reliable in the rotation, so Hogue can find satisfaction behind Dew’s production.
“Those two, for four years, have been getting it done at Southern Miss,” Hogue said. “Nobody is more familiar with Conference USA than those two.”
What the Golden Eagles lack in firepower across the board, they more than make up in dramatics. USM has gone four extra-inning games and recently won in walkoff fashion in the first and third game against the Lady Toppers.
“I think they want it really bad,” Hogue said. “We have to figure out that balance between wanting it and pressing for it.”
Although the team faces an uphill climb towards offensive relevancy sans Dew, McKeever and Cleary, there are bright spots for this team.
The Golden Eagles lost an earlier season series against No. 23 Florida Atlantic, but not before escaping Boca Raton, Florida with a much-needed win against a quality opponent.
The team is also off to their best 38-game start since the 2010 season in which they won 25 games in that season. They also matched their win total of last season with their win over Western Kentucky on Sunday, still with 16 games left in the regular season. The team’s unity and perseverance is a key to the team’s success, according to Hogue.
“These girls are giving it all they got, nobody is slacking on purpose,” Hogue said. “[We have to] let them know we’re confident in them and keep giving them opportunities.”
With the Golden Eagles winning their first series of the year, they may have found a blueprint to fix their offensive woes.
USM will travel to Baton Rouge to take on LSU on Wednesday at 6 p.m.