February 11, 2015
By: Colton Steiner, sports information assistant
When the flowers begin to bloom, and the snow starts melting, it’s a sign that softball season is just around corner. The Beavers are busy preparing for yet another season after finishing their last campaign with a record of 26-16 (12-4 conference) and second in the HCAC behind an Anderson University squad that was again picked as the favorite to win the HCAC in the coaches’ pre-season poll with Bluffton a close second.
“The HCAC in my eight years has gotten so much better,” said Bluffton Head Coach Heather Bruder on what the competition will be like this year in the conference. “The Heartland has always been compared to the NCAC, OAC, the MIAA, and I think we’re fitting in thanks to some great coaching hires in the last couple years.”
Bluffton will have senior Jessica Kuzara (Flat Rock, Mich./Huron) back to help lead the Beavers this year. Kuzara was one of the top hitters in the region last year with a batting average of .426 and was second in the conference. Kurzara led the team with 39 RBI’s, 58 hits, and she was tied for first on the team with home runs (5). Along with Kuzara, Bluffton will have Ariana Muffo (New Athens, Ill./New Athens) back behind the dish for her senior year as well. Muffo batted .344 with 14 doubles, 24 RBI’s, and five home runs.
“She’s a tough kid,” said coach Bruder when asked about Kuzara and how she played last year, as well as how she’ll transition into this year. “She’s a tough kid physically, mentally, emotionally, you name it. When you have tough kids, mentally and physically, I think good things happen, especially against quality teams.”
Chloe Shell (Covington), Brittany Baker (Springboro), Emily Kolezynski (Strongsville), and Jo Bondra (Highland Heights/Mayfield) round out this year’s talented class of seniors for Bluffton. With only one junior and one sophomore, the Beavers have some promising newcomers, with 13 freshman coming in to play. With a pretty young team, there can be some positives and negatives.
“They play with no fear. They play the game and not the opponent because they don’t know the opponent,” said Bruder on having 13 freshman. “They’re just going out and trying to do the fundamental things where I think sometimes upperclassmen get caught up in playing a certain team.”
When it comes to pitching, Bluffton has a solid rotation in place for 2015. Senior Chloe Shell finished last year with an ERA of 3.30, and a record of 12-8, including 10 complete games. She also placed third in the conference in strikeouts with 67. Returning alongside Shell is sophomore Emily Scupholm (Cuyahoga Falls/Our Lady of the Elms). Last year Scupholm had an ERA of 2.60 and finished 10-4 on the season. Another experienced hurler to watch this season is senior Emily Kolezynski. In her 20 appearances, she went 3-3, had an ERA of 4.17 and tallied 15 strikeouts.
“Having two senior pitchers is definitely a plus,” said coach Bruder. “You have a sophomore who won 10 games for you last year. Then you add three or four freshman pitchers who can come in, give the opposition a different look and close out games.”
Along with pitching comes defense and that’s what Coach Bruder said is the strongest phase of their game. Coach Bruder said the fact that all six seniors started last year and that all seniors have potential is what helps make the defense click. She stated that with junior Ashley Knippen (Wapakoneta) and sophomore Scupholm bringing back their experience, there are still 2-3 spots to be filled. Having speed off the bench is something the Beavers look to capitalize on this year. “In the past, we’ve lacked that,” said Coach Bruder. “We’ve wanted to play small ball and do things on the infield to beat out a base hit, and we just haven’t been able to get that done yet.”
Bluffton will look to show off their speed and defense when the season opens in Ft. Myers, Fla., at the Gene Cusic Classic on March 1-5. The Beavers return for their first game in Ohio on March 12 at 3:30 p.m. when they host Otterbein. Bluffton will open up conference play against Transylvania at home on March 28.