Monday’s dreary weather reflected last year’s rocky season for the Texas A&M softball program, but the Aggies’ opened spring practices with a sunny outlook for 2020.
“We have a lot of freshmen and transfers that have never played in the SEC,” senior center fielder Kelbi Fortenberry, adding that she’ll help them get comfortable and build confidence “to prove everyone that thinks we’re going to be last in the SEC wrong.”
A&M’s seven-member freshman class is led by infielder Jourdyn Campbell, who was ranked 19th in the Class of 2019 by FloSoftball and pitcher/outfielder Shaylee Ackerman, who was ranked 30th. Outfielder Sydney Fritsch was ranked 90th and pitcher Ashley Daugherty was 98th. Other newcomers include redshirt freshman utility player Kyndall Murray, a transfer from Clemson, and sophomore pitcher/outfielder Makinzy Herzog, a transfer from Florida State.
They’ll join five returning position players who each made at least 47 starts and all the pitchers off a team that went 28-27, including 6-18 in the Southeastern Conference to finish last in the 13-team league.
“We’re really athletic in that young class and our newcomers,” A&M coach Jo Evans said. “I just want to see those youngsters kind of tap into their athleticism and understand they know the game and relax and play it and have fun playing the game.”
Helping Evans with making that adjustment for them is first-year assistant Craig Snider, a hitting coach hired from Florida State. Snider inherits a team that batted .273 to rank 12th in the SEC. A&M was last in slugging percentage (.390), on-base percentage (.351), runs (243), hits (380), runs batted in (216), doubles (54) and home runs (32).
“Coach Snider’s really good with having a plan,” Evans said.
Snider is more concerned his players know how to approach each at-bat rather than their batting stance.
“The strategy of it [is key], just that knowing when you get in the box you understand what you’re looking for,” Evans said. “He’s really good at that. He’s good at the mechanical side, too, but it’s not the major focus of what we do in the cages. I think our players have responded really well to it and just his demeanor, his attitude every day, he has a lot of energy in the way he coaches.”
Fortenberry, who led the team in hitting last season at .343, has benefitted from Snider.
“He’s done a lot for my mental aspect of the game,” Fortenberry said.
Snider will try to improve A&M’s worst power numbers since joining the SEC.
“Offensively, we need to be driving the ball in the gaps, hitting some more balls out of the yard,” Evans said. “I think our power numbers and production definitely have been a focus and something that we need to increase.”
More offense will help a pitching staff that struggled early last season but improved without much run support.
“I did think that by the end of the year, we worked into a rotation but it was just thin,” Evans said. “This year we’ve got more depth on the mound, so we’re focused on figuring who those three pitchers who would be who could be starters for us and give some different looks in the series instead of having the same pitcher throwing two and three days in a row.”
Senior right-hander Kendall Potts (12-13, 3.14 ERA) and senior left-hander Payton McBride (9-7, 3.49) combined to throw every pitch in the team’s last four games. They also threw 123 2/3 of the club’s 154 2/3 SEC innings. Herzog, who was 10-2 with a 1.56 ERA last season at Florida State, should be able to help.
“Herzog is explosive,” Evans said. “She is very athletic, she’s very versatile. She plays a good outfield. She drives the ball she can hit home runs, she’s kind of a triple threat at the plate. And pitching-wise, she does it all. Her ball moves, she throws hard, she’s got a really good demeanor and composure. She does a nice job of keeping the game simple and I love the way she plays the game.”
Herzog batted .316 with 15 extra base hits, 26 RBIs and 13 stolen bases.
NOTES — Fortenberry is recovering from ulnar collateral ligament surgery on June 27. She finished last season after tearing the ligament in her elbow in March. “I was out pretty much the whole summer,” she said. “I started throwing in September-Octoberish. … “It’s been rough, it’s been a bunch of peaks and valleys. I’ll have really good days and I’ll have really bad days. As of right now, I’m doing really good throwing full out and it’s no pain so I’m pretty excited.” … Evans said practices will be brisk with the opener three and half weeks away. “It’s gotta be amped up in terms of pressure, game speed, the best we can. We want to get a lot of live work in.” … Junior outfielder Kylie George has transferred to Texas State. She hit .280 in 47 games with 28 starts last season, but had only 25 at-bats. Catcher/first baseman Abby Smith who hit .200 in 45 at-bats last season as a sophomore is no longer with the team but still enrolled in school, Evans said. … Louie Belina, voice of A&M softball for 26 seasons, has retired. Belina, who has his own sports talk show on KZNE (1150 AM, 93.7 FM) from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. weekdays, started as the program’s public address announcer in the 1990s before moving behind the mic. … A&M is scheduled to open the season with 11 straight home games starting with the Aggie Classic Feb. 7-9 when it will play Texas-Arlington three times and Abilene Christian twice. Lamar, St. John’s and Binghamton will be part of the Texas A&M Invitational Feb. 14-16. A&M will play in the Mary Nutter Classic in Cathedral City, California, on Feb. 20-22, which includes games with Arizona, Oklahoma and UCLA. … A&M will open SEC play March 7-9 at Kentucky.