Bluffton primed to defend HCAC regular season crown
By: Aaron Mass, sports information intern
January 29, 2009
The Bluffton University softball team enters the 2009 season with lofty expectations.
The Beavers finished the 2008 season with a record of 25-17 overall, and they shared
the regular season Heartland Conference title with Rose-Hulman. Bluffton's 13-3 record
in the HCAC gave the Beavers their first regular-season conference title since 2004.
The 13 HCAC wins also was the most single-season conference victories in Bluffton
Head Coach Heather Bruder is entering her third season as the Bluffton University
mentor. Her career record at Bluffton is 39-34 overall, including an impressive 22-9
in the HCAC during the regular season (.710 winning percentage). Bruder took home
the HCAC Coach of the Year award a year ago, as the Beavers' win total increased by 11
games from 2007 to 2008.
The HCAC tournament holds the key to an automatic bid for the NCAA Division III tournament.
Typically, only the team that wins that post-season tourney qualifies for the D-III
tournament. Unfortunately, the Beavers were defeated by arch-nemesis Defiance College
and then Bluffton fell to Mount St. Joseph in 2008, ending the magical season.
Despite one of the top seasons in Bluffton's softball history, Coach Bruder still
has that vision of going to the next level. "Every year, my expectation is to win
the national championship. I believe in always having the highest expectations. That
way we are always having the goal of improving each and every year."
|Offensively, Bruder believes the Beavers can be successful by continuing her philosophy
of aggressive base running. "In order to be effective on offense, it is important
to put pressure on the defense. From one through nine in the batting order, we need
to move the ball around with productive at bats, as well as advancing base runners."
||On the other side of the diamond, Coach Bruder realizes errors will be made, but it
is vital for her athletes to be in position to make plays, especially the routine
ones. "In addition to Brooke (Babcock) and Kelley (Kenney), we have added two freshmen
to expand and solidify our pitching staff. Kristen Agauas (Bloomfield, Mich./Andover H.S.) and Lauren Rombkowski (Maumee/Notre Dame) will give the Beavers talent and greater depth on the mound this
season. Adding a third and fourth pitcher will really help us down the stretch," quipped
|Bruder also believes that the league will once again have quite a bit of parity and
that, "Defiance is a team that we must play better against." Rose-Hulman, the school
that shared the regular season HCAC title with the Beavers a year ago, should also
be in the thick of things because they have experience coming back. Coach Bruder thinks
that Anderson, Mount St. Joseph and Transylvania will all have a say in the conference
Paul Burnside has stepped in as Bruder's assistant, and he is ready to fill the void
left by assistant coach Lisa Shepard. Coach Shepard was an All-American pitcher in
college, and was on Coach Bruder's staff for her first two seasons at Bluffton. "He
has been around softball for over 20 years and he started his own travel ball organization,"
Bruder said about the new hire. "He has already been a great help to the coaching
As for the wins and losses, the Beavers are looking to take the next step to propel
them into elite status. "The only way to earn respect is by winning. No one remembers
the runner-up. Once you win, that expectation is there. We are ready to win it (HCAC)
outright." Clearly Coach Bruder stresses seeing improvements each and every season.
|One of the hot topics around the Bluffton University campus has been the construction
of the new softball facility just behind the baseball field. The first home game is
scheduled for March 12 versus Ursuline College. "As of now, we are scheduled to play
our first home game at the new facility," she said. Bruder also explained that the
new facility in the making has helped the recruiting process. "There are two main
factors that weigh heavily on recruiting, a winning program and your facilities."
The fact that Bluffton just won the HCAC regular season title a year ago, coupled
with the excitement regarding a new facility, has greatly assisted recruiting of both
numbers and talent.
||The squad lost only three seniors from last season. There are three seniors that return,
including infielder Lindsey Miller (Wapakoneta). She was named the Heartland Conference MVP following an incredible
2008 season in which she shattered several school records. She was first in the conference
in batting average (.462), home runs (11), RBI (45) and total bases (97). Entering
her final campaign, she is first all-time in Bluffton softball history in batting
average, slugging percentage, and career home runs.
|Bluffton's success a year ago was also thanks to two other all-HCAC selections. Brooke Babcock (Findlay) is back for her junior season after leading the conference in regular season
pitching victories with 13. Fellow junior Jayme Marbaugh (Ohio City/Parkway) returns after a sophomore campaign in which she was second on
the team in RBI.
|As expected, Coach Bruder is looking to Lindsey Miller for leadership. "She is an
incredibly hard worker who the team looks up to for guidance. She has the talent and
ability, but also works hard. Her ability matches her work ethic." Furthermore, both
captains from a year ago return, Miller and senior pitcher Kellie Kenney (Toledo/Emmanuel Baptist). She was 12-4 in 2008 with a superb 2.91 earned run average.
It is undoubtedly an asset to have experience back, and even more so if those returners
have been on the field in pressure situations. "My seniors are ready to lead. They
have the mentality of 'this is it.' I think my seniors are looking at this season
as their last chance to go to the NCAA Regionals and the national tournament."
The Beavers will also count on several freshmen to take on the task of adjusting to
the Division III college softball game. "As many as five freshmen could be on the
field at any one time. With our great leaders and work ethic, our freshman will be
molded that same way," stated Coach Bruder who boasts a roster that contains nine
Something that cannot be ignored in this part of the country is the weather that must
be dealt with by both baseball and softball teams. Coach Bruder puts the condition
of the field entirely on her shoulders. "I feel like my players have the right to
play because of how hard they work. It is my responsibility to have the field in the
best possible shape," she said.
||Bruder's troops open this season at the Rebel Spring Games in Kissimmee, Florida,
which is located south of Orlando. The Beavers will play 10 games in only five days
over Bluffton University's spring break (from March 2-6). The 2009 opener is scheduled
for March 2 against Widener University from Chester, Pennsylvania. "The wins and losses
at spring break are not as important as how we play down there. There are two seasons
in softball, conference and non-conference, and only the top four make the HCAC tournament,"
she remarked. Bruder also noted that she has a strict policy of team conduct and that
it is not a vacation as many other students across the country are experiencing: "We
are there to play softball, plain and simple."
There are several notable contests this season for Bluffton. First and foremost is
the home opener at the new softball facility, scheduled for Thursday, March 12, against
Ursuline College. The HCAC lidlifter for the Beavers is on the road against Rose-Hulman
on March 28. A non-conference battle against Case Western Reserve University on April
18 is Bluffton's annual Strike-Out Cancer Day.
The Bluffton softball program will say goodbye to a memorable class of three seniors
on April 25 which is Senior/Parent Day. That game is the final regular season battle
against HCAC rival Hanover College. Finally, the Beavers will be in search of their
third consecutive HCAC tournament appearance, and only the top four teams qualify.
The winner receives an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The 2009 Heartland Conference
tournament is scheduled for May 1-2.
Coach Bruder has already made huge strides with the softball program at Bluffton University
in less than three years. "My heart is here because I love my kids. I love Ohio and
Division III, and I love what Bluffton University stands for."