Gazaway lifts a home run

NCCC's Mallory Gazaway lifts a home run versus Rose State in 2020. In 2021, she will be one of the key pieces once more.

It’s been more than a year since Neosho County Community College’s softball team has had a normal season. 

The novel virus wiped out 2020. NCCC finished with a 4-10 record with the last game on March 6. More recently in February 2021, inclement weather and COVID-19 have already postponed and cancelled games. 

NCCC’s games against Hutchinson Community College, Northeastern Oklahoma A&M and Ottawa University JV have all been cancelled or postponed due to either COVID-19 or the glacial winter the Midwest has been plagued with recently. The next game – the first game of the 2021 season – is now slated for Northern Oklahoma College in Enid, Okla. on Monday, Feb. 22. If things are perfect moving forward, the Panthers’ first home game will be March 5 versus Rose State College.

Practice and players

Prior to coming back to campus on Jan. 4, the team practiced for three months before journeying home at Thanksgiving break. Since early January, the team has been hitting and participating in live defensive and other drills at the college’s Ross Lane indoor facility.

Tenth-year NCCC coach Kim Alexander said her team has been looking good.

“Practice has been going good. I think that our girls are ready. They come, they work hard. The intensity – all of that,” Alexander said. “We’re just ready to play right now. They do what they need to do. And we’re just preparing them, waiting for our first outing.”

Ahead of the first game, the team is composed of 10 returning sophomores and 14 freshmen. 

As far as the sophomores go, NCCC has a good mix of second-year players, including Cassidy Paulson (Arvada, Colo.), who does an admirable job in the circle, but also swings well. Last year, she was able to pitch a couple games, so she knows what the program will expect of her this time around. 

“Although my freshman season came to an end sooner than we expected it to, it gave me some time to grow on and off the field,” Paulson said. “Although we didn’t get to play a fall season, we were lucky enough to play each other by inter squads on the weekends.

“Looking back, this gave myself as a pitcher a chance to use the knowledge I had about my own teammates and their abilities and work to find their weaknesses. Those games helped by giving instant feedback by watching film. I picked up on the little things such as how I hold myself on a good day vs. a bad day or what changes I can make the next time I throw to that teammate. I was blessed during this time to be able to go up to these girls and have a conversation about what they see, why they aren’t biting at my rise ball or if a certain pitch had movement... I have never wanted a season to start so bad in my life, this team has worked so long and so hard I can’t wait to see the things we achieve this season.”

Sophomore Karley Crowe (Carthage, Mo.) played outfield and hit lead off for NCCC last year. With her knowledge of the game, speed and competitiveness, Alexander said she anticipates Crowe playing well this season. 

Sophomores Kirsten Birdwell (Arkansas City) and Mallory Gazaway (Liberal, Mo.) bring a lot of power to the lineup. They do an exceptional job of stepping up and driving in runs.

“From last year to this year, I believe I have gathered more knowledge and experience for the game in general,” Gazaway said. “I have learned the expectations from not only the coaches, but from my team and myself. We work hard together to become the best versions of ourselves offensively and defensively. We have had time to push each other to reach the goals we have set for ourselves. I think we have a lot of talent this year and I’m excited for what that can hold for us.”

Freshman Chelsey Hughes (Pawnee, Okla.) will be coming back from an arm injury, but Alexander noted that she has bought in, performing in the fall and winter. Alexander said the coaching staff foresees big things from her in the spring, including fruitful at-bats. Adding on to the pitching staff will be freshman pitcher Olivia Cummings (Pryor, Okla.), freshman Lauren Fuller, freshman Katie Boline, and sophomore Ravin Moore, who had limited play in the 2020 truncated year because of injuries.

“It’s going to be more of a pitching staff I feel like this year, so I do feel like they feed off and work well together,” Alexander said. “So I do have five, and I think within those five, they are going to bring something different to the table. They all have the knowledge and tools to do what we need done. So I definitely think as a whole when it comes to pitching, we are more of a pitching staff. So I definitely think the pitching staff will be pretty good, which is a combination of freshmen and sophomores.”

Other sophomores who have stood out include Alyssa Gillespie (Howard), Jena Stahl (Lamar, Mo.) and Amanda Dodds (Andover). 

Alexander said these players have done a praise-worthy job in the fall and winter, and she can’t wait to see what they contribute this season. Offensively, the hitters drive the ball with a lot of power and complement that power with a ton of speed around the bases. And defensively, the Panthers are deep, as several have the ability to play multiple positions. 

What’s more, this team is very different from last year’s.

“I think the girls have a very good team chemistry,” Alexander said. “I think they work hard together. I think that when they do stuff, it’s together. They just get along. That’s way different from what we had last year, so I definitely think that’s going to help us this year … how well they mesh together, how well they fight together. We’re excited. We’re ready to go.”

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