Pitching depth and variety are key factors to a team’s softball success.
Northwestern State is deeper in the circle this season than coach Donald Pickett has had since winning the Southland Conference regular season in 2015, or possibly ever as Pickett enters his 12th season in Natchitoches.
NSU brings back three of its four primary pitchers and added NJCAA Division II pitcher of the year Jensen Howell.
Add that to an offensive starting lineup that returns eight of its top 10 bats, and the Lady Demons figure to be a contender for the Southland Conference title.
The Lady Demons will attempt to build off a pair of Southland Conference Tournament wins that launched NSU into the winner’s bracket as a No. 6 seed, highlights a 30-win campaign that included a 15-12 league mark.
Junior E.C. Delafield (10-4, 2.49 ERA) led the team in wins and ERA, senior Samantha Guile (9-11, 2.76 ERA) led the squad in strikeouts and innings pitched (77 in 116 2/3 innings) and sophomore Bronte Rhoden (5-3, 3.52 ERA) earned valuable experience as a starter and reliever.
Signee Jensen Howell compiled a 22-3 mark while helping LSU-Eunice to a NJCAA Division II national championship.
Pickett said the variety of arms will offer different looks to opposing hitters.
“I don’t know that we’ve ever had four with this much experience at one time,” Pickett said. “They set the tone for this team, and I’m looking for all four of them to have a big impact.
“With the variety and depth this staff has, we can make pitching changes quicker and get out ahead of a momentum change. We have confidence in all four of these arms, and we can give all of these great offensive teams in our league different looks.”
The lone arm not returning is Mikayla Brown, who regained much of her former self as she compiled a 2.78 ERA and a 6-8 record, although she evolved into a primary reliever. Brown did toss four of NSU’s nine shutouts and finished her career with 12.
Delafield was selected to the All-Southland Conference first team as a utility player.
Pickett said she’s become a more consistent pitcher in the offseason.
“(Delafield) has been consistent in her command of pitches, and she’s come a long way in being able to change speeds,” Pickett said. “She can keep teams off balanced.”
Guile is a power pitcher that improved as she adjusted to NSU’s style of play after transferring from Southern Utah.
Rhoden brings a bulldog mentality and developed her confidence throughout her freshman season.
“We’ll continue to use Sammie to keep teams off-balanced,” Pickett said. “(Rhoden) has taken huge steps forward with her confidence.
“We’re really excited to have all three of these players back in a second season under pitching coach Brooke Boening, who’s done a great job. We don’t have to do a lot of explaining with our pitchers in her second season, and we can get right to work on the meat and potatoes.”
Howell is another power pitcher that has Division I experience after pitching at Louisiana Tech as a freshman.
“Jensen is a power pitcher who can move the ball around and keep batters honest,” Pickett said. “We want to bring her along slowly, but I know she’s eager to get out there and prove herself.
“The biggest thing is that she doesn’t have to prove everything every time out. Staying within herself will be big.”
NSU has slowly rebuilt its power-based offense of the early and mid-2010s, and the Lady Demons aim to bring the pop back with eight of its top 10 bats returning from a lineup that averaged nearly seven runs per game.
The top seven Lady Demons in terms of batting average all return, and Pickett expects several of his seven incoming freshmen to challenge for playing time.
Returners accounted for 31 of NSU’s 35 home runs and 167 of 202 RBIs.
“We have our choice of lefties and righties, and we’ll have more depth overall this year,” Pickett said. “With so many returners, we’re more comfortable switching up the lineup when a certain matchup arises or somebody gets in a slump.
“We should be able to make more things happen with a more versatile lineup, and I don’t think we’ll be as top heavy as we have been.”
Three seniors, two of which have been named all-conference in their careers, will patrol the outfield.
Senior Elise Vincent had one of NSU’s best conference slates this past season to finish strongly and be named to the All-SLC third team with a .304 average and 18 steals.
Senior Kaitlyn St. Clair had a similar season two years ago in which made the all-conference team, and she still produced a .278 average with 19 RBIs as a junior.
Senior Hayley Barbazon will patrol centerfield once again, hoping to build on a season in which she scored 34 runs and was a perfect 11-for-11 on stolen bases.
The three outfield seniors are the backbone of a five-member senior class, who when combined with Hawthorne have started or played significant roles in all four seasons.
“We want all of our seniors to take steps forward in their least years, and we think they can all have huge years,” Pickett said. “(St. Clair) is capable of daily consistency, and (Vincent) is continue to build on that.
“(Barbazon) has had a lot of bright moments, but we want her to find that consistency. Nobody should have as much pressure on them with the depth we have.”
Other outfielders who could see time include sophomore Casey Irvin and freshmen Jordan Dickerson and Kacee Mertens.
Junior Codi Vernace has played in right field and behind the plate, and her bat could also factor in at designated hitter after
All-Southland Conference second baseman Cayla Jones leads a group that will feature three returning starters and two newcomers.
Opposing pitchers attempted to pitch around Jones, but she still hit for a .335 average with nine home runs, 35 RBIs and 36 walks, leading to 41 runs scored.
“It will be harder to pitch around Cayla with this lineup,” Pickett said. “They’ll still try to make her hit pitches that they feel aren’t her strength, but I think she’ll have more of an opportunity to make an impact because we have a deeper lineup.”
NSU features a pair of third baseman who have extensive starting experience. Senior Emma Hawthorne made 39 total starts this past season, whether she was at third base or designated hitter. Hawthorne came on strong in SLC play and warmed up to a .267 average with 16 RBIs.
Hawthorne has served as a starting catcher in past seasons and could find time at first base as well.
Rising sophomore Maggie Black started 51 games and was the primary starting third baseman who can also play shortstop.
Black gained confidence throughout the season and finished with 18 RBIs and eight doubles.
Fellow sophomore Alexis Perry returns at catcher after starting all 57 games this past season. She belted six home runs with 30 RBIs while hitting for a solid .288 average.
“Hawthorne took steps forward throughout the year, and she’s a veteran that will find a way to contribute,” Pickett said. “Perry has looked really good behind the plate, and she’s a consistent kid who’s a student of the game.
“Black made strides as a freshman, and she’s athletic enough to play multiple positions.”
Freshman Keely DuBois could see time at shortstop after a distinguished career at Many High.