By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (March 31, 2016) — Some are calling it the biggest regular season home game in the history of the Stephenville softball program.
But head coach Rus Mayes is doing his best to see it – and more importantly, to get his team to see it – as just another day at the yard.
But it’s not every day you approach the midway point of a district race while hosting the team you are tied alongside for first place.
So Friday is not just any day at the yard. Stephenville (18-7, 2-0) welcomes co-leader Abilene Wylie (8-4-1, 2-0) to McCleskey Field at 7 p.m. following a 5 p.m. junior varsity contest.
“Some would say it’s no bigger than the next one, and it’s not like you can win or lose the district title tomorrow,” said Mayes Thursday afternoon. “But it’s not a secret – one of us is going to come out of it with a big advantage in the race.”
The Bees swept Wylie a year ago, pivotal wins for a young squad that eventually fell to five-time state champion Burkburnett in the Region I-4A playoffs. Now, with eight starters back and an influx of talent from a strong freshman class, Stephenville is in the midst of its best run in program history.
The Honeybees shrugged off a slow start that saw them drop five of their first six, bouncing back with six straight wins, including five in the Honeybee Invitational at Stephenville City Park. They reached the final in their home tournament before falling to Hillsboro, but a week later captured the program’s first tournament title in Snyder.
“On any given day we could start six freshmen and sophomores, so we’re young and inexperienced in a lot of places and that showed early in the year when we lost several games that came down to the last inning or even the last at bat. We didn’t know how to win those games yet,” Mayes said. “But then we got into a groove and the momentum started building and it hasn’t really stopped.”
Or even slowed down, except for a non-district hiccup at Fort Worth Country Day. Since the 1-5 start, Stephenville is 17-2. Now, they’re planning a “Pack the Park” night as they try to grab sole possession of first place in 6-4A Friday.
“Wylie is well coached and fundamental in everything they do, but they’re different than the great Wylie teams of years past,” Mayes explained. “They may not have dominant pitching, but they have solid pitching and have really been riding their bats. The Wylie teams of old seemed to ride the arms, but the last couple of years, it’s been the bats that have been their biggest strength.”
Wylie is also on a recent tear, winning six of its last seven. The only loss during that stretch came to 5A Abilene Cooper. But like the Honeybees, the Bulldogs had to fight off a slow start to the season.
Wylie lost to 3A foes Clyde, Breckenridge and Bangs as part of as part of a 2-3-1 start. Since that time, they have scored in double figures four times in seven games.
“We have to pitch well and play solid defense. If we can do that, I like our chances offensively,” said Mayes.
Why wouldn’t he? The Honeybees are hitting .389 on the season, with an on-base percentage of .480. Senior leadoff hitter Kali Smith bats .525 and is followed in the lineup by surging freshman Madison Gilder, who hits .475.
“Madison has been a pleasant surprise just because I hadn’t seen her play very much. I thought based on her summer league experience she would be a varsity starter, but I was thinking of her as a slapper and good defender,” Mayes said. “She may be a tiny thing, but she has some pop. We’ve seen her hit the fence a couple times and she’s gone yard in practice.”
There is power up and down the lineup, particularly from Nadine Arredondo, who leads the club with six home runs and 29 RBIs. Sami Shaffer, Smith and Jennie Winstead have each homered twice for the Bees. Shaffer and Julia Flores each have 24 RBIs, while Smith leads the team in extra-base hits with 13.
“We don’t have an easy out one through nine, and any number of them are capable of taking you deep,” said Mayes.
Flores has done more than her part in the circle, starting all 25 games and pitching all but one inning on the season with a 1.83 earned run average and 169 strikeouts. That’s 1.4 strikeouts per inning with just 23 walks issued on the season.
“With Julia pitching, we’re always in the game. She’s solid and she’s a competitor,” said Mayes.
Much like the Stephenville softball program has become solid and competitive, perhaps even better.
The next step, Mayes and company hope, is contending for a district championship.
“We’re the only teams that haven’t lost a district game,” Mayes reiterated. “It’s early, and every one of them just count for one game in the standings, but the winner of this one will be in prime position for sure.”