POPLARVILLE – Pearl River Community College had another successful softball season in 2016, a winning season along with another MACJC playoff berth.
But a season that began with tremendous promise fell short of expectations, as the Wildcats finished 24-23 and 14-14 in conference play. PRCC claimed the No. 8 spot in the MACJC playoffs, but was eliminated by top-seeded Jones County in two games in the first-round playoff series.
“We started off hitting the ball really well,” said Wildcat head coach Leigh White, who completed her 14th season at the helm of Pearl River softball.
“We had potential, but we could never get on a streak, and we lost to some teams we should have beaten. We just couldn’t ever get anything going consistently.”
The Wildcats did not finish the season strong, going 5-11 over their last 16 games, and needed to sweep Mississippi Delta in the final doubleheader of the season to slip into the playoffs.
White said it was no coincidence that Pearl River’s late-season slump coincided with an offensive decline by sophomore centerfielder and leadoff batter Branda Northrop, whose batting average dropped from .427 in late March to her final average of .386.
“She was our spark, and we could score when she got on base,” White said. “She got in a little slump toward the end of the season. She got it back a little, but she could never quite get any consistency at the plate.”
Another factor was inconsistent pitching by sophomore right-hander Skyler Cook, who played through an ankle injury she suffered right before the beginning of the season. She had a solid season, finishing 11-9, with a 3.57 earned-run average, but White lamented what could have been with Cook.
“Before she got hurt, she was throwing the ball really well, hitting the ball really well,” said White. “Afterwards, she never really got back to where she was. At times, she pitched well, especially in the toughest games, but she could never be consistent.”
Beyond all other factors, though, the biggest reason PRCC failed to meet its potential was defense. The Wildcats committed 93 errors, leading to 92 unearned runs, more than a third of their runs-allowed total.
“We tried all season to fix it by moving people around,” White said. “Where we’re fixing it for next year is we’re bringing in 14 freshmen.
“I’ve never had a year like this one, where we didn’t play good defense. We’ve always been known for our defense, for making routine plays, and it bit us in the rear this year.”
Along with Northrop and Cook, PRCC loses several other key sophomores, including first baseman Rachel Brockhaus, who led the team with 6 home runs and 34 RBIs, and catcher Briana Leonard, who batted .348 with 29 RBIs.
However, White likes the nucleus of players she has returning, led by versatile Kristen Martin, who hit .333 and drove in 32 runs.
White also likes the potential shown by outfielder Reilly Bunnell, who scored 32 runs and stole 15 bases in her main role as a pinch-runner, and had 11 hits and a pair of walks in 16 plate appearances.
“Reilly has told us she plans to work hard to get better so she can step into a bigger role next season,” White said. “She’s got the speed and she’s got the talent; she just has to find the confidence to a consistent player for us.
“Kristen brings a lot to the table for us; Brooke (Barnes) can play anywhere and she can hit the ball.”
White said she is looking for a bigger role next year for freshman pitcher Jackie Shows, who was 2-2 with a 5.38 ERA after coming back at midseason from surgery in October for a torn labrum.
“We haven’t seen Jackie at 100 percent,” White said. “She spins the ball really well and her demeanor in the circle is something a lot of pitchers need to have.”
Along with returning freshman Madison Scoggin, White expects to have a deeper staff next spring with the addition of four pitchers that were signed in January.
White is also very high on Destiny Wesley, who had 113 RBIs in four seasons prior to this season at St. Charles Catholic High School in La Place, La. She is one of three Louisiana players White signed for next year.
“Destiny Wesley is going to come in here and do big things,” White said. “She’s a difference-maker. We were very happy to get all three of the out-of-state players we have coming in.”