Entering her first season as head coach at her alma mater, Knox County softball coach Lauren Dale looks at it as a marathon. She hopes to see steady improvement through the season so the Eagles will be in good shape for the postseason.
But she’s also made practices similar to marathons, emphasizing fitness and making the girls run a lot. Early weeks were focused on distance running to build endurance and stamina. The last week of practices before games begin has been oriented around sprints.
“We’re focusing on fitness because you win games on endurance,” Dale said.
Dale said the team wasn’t very fast, so all the running helps with that. But it’s also building leg strength, which will help pitchers be better and give infielders more range.
“The beginning part when you drive off the mound is similar to a sprint. So we need to build our leg strength so we can throw harder and be more effective with our pitches and go longer,” Dale said. “Short-burst movements are what a lot of softball is about. Moving left to right on the field is important and, hopefully, moving our feet a little faster will help us get to more balls.”
Senior shortstop Riley Strange has already seen the benefits to more running.
“The best athletes in the game are the ones that are in the best shape,” Strange said. “… I think we’ve run more this year than I have in my entire four years for softball. I’ve already seen changes like we run drills harder and can take ground balls way longer than we have in the past. There’s just a lot more you can do when you’re in better shape and don’t need to take 30-second breaks between everything you do.”
After serving as an assistant coach last season, Dale got to know most of the girls and has been able to focus on teaching. Dale had a storied career on the diamond, being part of a Final Four team and winning multiple district titles at Knox County. She then went on to be a top pitcher at Truman and won 51 games in the circle.
If there’s one thing the Eagles have learned in practice so far, it is Dale’s love and respect for the sport.
Strange said last year’s 12-10 run was a disappointing season for her. The Eagles made the Final Four in 2018 and then had a large group of productive seniors graduate. So there were new players in new spots last year, and many young girls getting their first taste of playing. Strange said there were times where young players lost focus or didn’t handle adversity well.
Dale has helped reinforce why the players are all there: to have fun and play well.
“I have definitely seen a shift,” Strange said. “With the girls we have, I doubt attitudes will be an issue this year. With the new girls coming up, they have enough love for the sport, so we will be fine.”
Strange was an All-State and All-Express honoree last season after hitting over .500. Kinsley Johnson and Jen Hinkle are steady bats also in the lineup. Hinkle can play almost anywhere for Dale and hit .433 last year as a freshman. Johnson and junior Daniela Dooley will also do most of the pitching this year.
Based on what she has seen in practices so far, Dale thinks the Eagles are set for a good year.
“I think there’s a lot of potential within these girls,” Dale said. “Seeing how much improvement they made since last year, there is still room for more improvement. With as much as they’ve made, if they continue to make that growth, I think by the end of this season we’ll have a really strong and competitive team in this area.”