Hired last November to take over the Southwest Minnesota State softball program, first-year head coach Missy Bruggeman has had nearly two months to work hands on with her players since practice for the 2012 season began on Jan. 9. But there's a difference between knowing how your players practice and knowing how they play in a game.
Bruggeman will get her first chance to see her Mustangs get on the field and compete against another team when SMSU begins play in the Rebel Spring Games in Kissimmee, Fla., this weekend. SMSU will play 14 games over a span of eight days, starting with games against Ferris State (Mich.) and the University of Sciences in Philadelphia on Sunday.
With what she's seen from her team so far, Bruggeman thinks the Mustangs are off to a good start as they look to improve on a 29-19 overall record and sixth-place finish in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference in 2011.
"I've been pleasantly surprised with them in terms of having a younger coach coming in and I think there's kind of a mutual respect in that because they know I just went through it," said Bruggeman, who was a four-year standout at St. Thomas and earned All-American honors as a senior in 2009. "When they're doing some things that they don't necessarily like to do, they realize the program that I came from and what we did in that program and they're pretty much following suit. I'm very pleased with their work ethic, more than anything, and their ability to be open to change."
Bruggeman said the Mustangs will be young this season, with 10 freshmen coming in and trying to find their roles on the team. The leadership of a strong core of upperclassmen should help them ease the transition. SMSU has eight players who have seen significant action in past seasons.
One of the top returners is senior pitcher Chelsey Evans. She appeared in 21 games last season, starting seven of them. She posted a 9-4 record and 2.36 earned run average in 74 innings pitched. Evans' contributions on the mound will be key to the team's success, and Bruggeman said her leadership will be just as important.
"Chelsey has brought a great attitude to the program this year," Bruggeman said. "She's stepped up as a leader, not only on the pitching side of things but also by just being a good teammate. She has a lot of goals in mind for herself and for her team this year. She throws the ball hard and I think she has what it takes to get it done."
SMSU's three other pitchers from last season all graduated, so there will be a chance for the younger players to step in and contribute immediately. Bruggeman said Rachel Hoeppner, a freshman from Rosemount, is one of the players she thinks could make an impact from the circle right away.
Offensively, seniors Christine Borowiak and Krista Steen are expected to be two of the players to lead SMSU at the plate. Borowiak, a center fielder, had a 3.45 batting average and .606 slugging percentage in 2011, leading the team in RBI (30), home runs (10) and stolen bases (12). Steen, a catcher, batted .338 with a .517 slugging percentage and led the team with 51 hits and eight doubles.
Those two players have had success hitting for power, but Bruggeman things this year's team will also be well suited to play some small ball.
"Honestly, I hope to utilize a little bit of a short game," she said. "We're pretty quick in terms of our overall team speed and a lot of those freshmen are pretty quick and feisty in that sense."
Last season was the second time in six years that SMSU was not chosen to compete in the NCAA tournament. NSIC champions 10 times since 1985, the program was chosen as a middle-of-the-pack team in the conference's preseason coaches' poll. But Bruggeman said her Mustangs won't be very pleased with finishing in the middle of the pack this season.
"We're ranked eighth in the preseason NSIC poll and I think we can end up well above that," Bruggeman said. "I think a good goal for us is to contend for the regional tournament. I don't think that's anything that's too far and beyond what's realistic for us."