EDWARDSVILLE — The 2014 SIUE softball season was one to remember – the team's first Ohio Valley Conference championship and first NCAA Division I Tournament appearance.
That's something to build upon for Cougar softball in 2015.
"I don't know that it's any different going after a conference championship whether you're ranked No. 1 or No. 6," said SIUE head coach Sandy Montgomery. "I think you're constantly striving to be your best."
The Cougars start the 2015 season in Ruston, Louisiana, for the Lady Techster Invitational. SIUE opens the season Friday with an 11:45 a.m. start time against Abilene Christian. The three-day, five-game trip for the Cougars includes games against Louisiana Tech (Friday, 2 p.m.), Missouri State (Saturday, 1:30 p.m.), Louisiana-Monroe (Saturday, 8:15 p.m.), and Arkansas-Pine Bluff (Sunday, 11:15 a.m.).
SIUE enters the 2015 season as the OVC preseason favorite.
"That is a nice accolade, but it really doesn't do anything for how we choose to proceed in our goals for the season or what we want to accomplish this year," added Montgomery.
The Cougars return a solid group of players who helped hoist the 2014 Championship trophy. It begins with left-handed pitcher Haley Chambers (Coatesville, Indiana). The junior was a second team All-Midwest Region performer and the Most Valuable Player at the 2014 OVC Championships.
She understands she has a lot of room to grow and as good as she's been the last two years she could improve on command on her composure and poise," said Montgomery. "She is in a position now where she can't hide from success and she has to handle it and keep trying to get better. When she gets better our team gets better."
Chambers has won 37 games in her first two seasons, including three no-hitters against OVC competition.
Sophomore Alexis Kohrs (DuQuoin, Illinois) will be looking for a larger role on the pitching staff in 2015. Montgomery said it's just a matter of experience and confidence.
"Alexis worked her tail off all summer, and it paid off," Montgomery noted. "She has come in with command of her pitches. I expect her to be a contributor and a major factor this season."
Freshman Baylee Douglass (Centralia, Missouri) is preparing for her first spring season.
"She's not your typical freshman," said Montgomery. "She knows how to get kids out, and she knows how to win. She's been a winner all her life. I think she adds a complement to our staff that makes us much more diverse than last season's staff."
With 914 victories over 27 seasons, there's one thing that has not changed for Montgomery. Hitters find their way into the lineup.
Offense is at a premium in the OVC. With the Cougars attacking another tough nonconference schedule, Montgomery will be looking for the right mix of players.
She expects her lineups will change with who is pitching any given game and who has a hot bat.
Alex McDavid (Suwanee, Ga.), an All-Mideast Region pick two seasons ago at third base, will split time at third base and shortstop.
"I brought her in here originally as a shortstop but turned her into a third baseman," said Montgomery. "She's a flat out athlete and has a cannon for an arm. She will be in the lineup every game."
The Cougars are looking to develop freshman Haley Adrian (Auburn, Alabama) into an everyday third baseman.
"She is a hard worker from Alabama," said Montgomery. "She is raw at the position not as polished but makes up for it with her work ethic and desire to be on the field."
Just as McDavid may be playing two different positions during the season, Montgomery also sees sophomore Amy Hunt (Troy, Illinois) wearing multiple hats as a shortstop and a catcher.
"She turns the double play quicker than anyone we've had," said Montgomery. "She is very quick in short distances."
Hunt will share catching duties with freshman Tess Eby (Grapevine, Texas).
"Tess is a catcher who frames the ball well and has great energy," said Montgomery. "She's come a long way so far this year from a development standpoint."
The Cougars appear to be set at second base with sophomore Allison Smiley (Johnson City, Illinois). She led the team last season as a freshman with a .315 batting average. Her leadership also translated into being named one of the team's four captains that includes Chambers, McDavid, and senior outfielder Brittany Toney (Hendersonville, Tennessee).
"Smiley is a game savvy kid and was voted to be a captain as well. For a sophomore to be a captain, that shows maturity and the respect of her teammates," said Montgomery.
Rachel Keller (Bethalto, Illinois) also has positioned herself well in SIUE's plans. The junior hit .298 last season and will likely split time at first base with Chambers.
"Rachel can play a lot of different positions – first, second, and third," noted Montgomery.
Maria Prete (Westmont, Illinois) is a freshman infielder who appeared in x games during the fall season. A preseason injury, however, has sidelined her. "We're hoping to get her back to at least contribute offensively," said Montgomery.
SIUE also has junior Allie Hill (Bethalto, Illinois) who is coming off a huge season at Kankakee Community College.
Montgomery values players who are hard workers, ones who practice as hard during the week as game time.
She has numerous options in the outfield with a handful of players who fit the mold as hard workers.
Jordan LaFave (Valrico, Florida) made 10 or more starts in each of the three outfield positions last season.
"She's actually our truest outfielder. She can play all three spots and understand the angles of all three," said Montgomery.
Toney is probably having her best preseason, according to Montgomery.
"Brittany can hit it hard, and she's done a nice job of growing into an outfield position," added Montgomery.
Whitney Lanphier (Plainfield, Illinois) is working her way back to 100 percent after an injury sidelined her during the fall season. She was tied for the team lead last season in home runs with three as a freshman.
Rebecca Gray (Crete, Illinois) returns for her senior season and has shown marked improvement.
"Becca has come into her own this year," said Montgomery. She improved her arm strength over their summer. She's seeing the ball well at the plate, squaring it up, and she's got good speed."
Kelsey Hansen (East Peoria, Illinois) has scored 19 runs in two seasons mostly off the bench.
"Right now she's in the mix for playing time," Montgomery said. "She's been a role player the last couple years, and she practiced hard this fall. She put herself in the position where she's on the right page to get into the mix and rotation."
The Cougars also added senior Samantha Jones (Florissant, Missouri), who was a four-year member of the SIUE women's soccer team, to provide a threat on the basepaths.
"She's fast and we're teaching her how to run the bases and put pressure on the defense," said Montgomery. "She is a great kid and gets frustrated when she doesn't have the skill set, but I'm happy she decided to play with us because she certainly added a dynamic to the team we did not have, someone who has speed on the bases.
Montgomery said the Cougars are well ahead of where they were last year at this time.
"We've been outside and hit live pitchers multiple times. Having the ability to be on the field in January is huge toward our preparation. The kids have worked hard on the field and in the classroom this past fall, achieving our highest grade point average. We are enjoying our success but understand how important it is to keep getting better," Montgomery concluded.