BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (WBKO) --- The Lady Topper Softball team is riding high going into their weekend series against the Florida Atlantic Owls. It has been a record start for WKU highlighted by their monumental 4-1 victory against #17 Kentucky. The Lady Tops displayed an incredible amount of confidence and determination against Kentucky, that may have shocked some, but has been regular for Western throughout this historical season.
WKU Softball hasn’t a ton of success in program history as they’ve only won two conference tournaments with the last coming in 2015. This year though, the Tops have been priming themselves for triumph with aggressive offense and tight defense. They are in the top 15 in the NCAA in stolen bases, and two of their three pitchers are in the top five in Conference USA.
WKU senior Rebekah Engelhardt said, “Every single senior is here to win a conference championship. We are driven by that, and there is no one on the team that doesn’t have that goal in mind.”
One of those seniors who has been meteoric for the Lady Tops is Tennessee transfer Shannon Plese. The Tennessee native has been one of the biggest offensive threats for WKU throughout the year. She’s been torturing pitchers across the NCAA as one of the best hitters in C-USA, but I’m told she refuses to look at her stats so we’ll say she bats .500. Her biggest asset to the team though, according to Head Coach Amy Tudor, is the example she has set for the team.
Tudor said, “Shannon is an all-out type of player. She also spends a lot of time on her own hitting outside of practice, and I think that is contagious in a good way.
One of the more impressive figures on Plese’s stat-line is her stolen bases. Her 12 stolen bases are more than anyone else on a WKU team that has made an unprecedented commitment to stealing bags. Coach Tudor admitted that they aren’t the quickest team, but they are obsessively studying opposing pitchers and exposing them when they have a chance. The Lady Tops have stolen bases on 87% of their attempts.
Coach Tudor said, “I expect them to be safe every time, and they’ve really bought into that. They’ve done a good job at reading balls, and we’re going to get thrown out, but that’s to be expected. There’s no consequence for being aggressive and getting thrown out.”
The fifth-year head coach added, “We have a pre-plan of what’s going to happen, and it’s not a secret when we are stealing. It’s just the right time and scouting your opponents and knowing when you can and can’t go.”
The batting has been elite for the Lady Tops, and the pitching hasn’t been much worse. In fact, WKU has a marginally better ERA (2.31) and WHIP (1.26) than the 2015 season which featured one of the greatest pitching staffs in school history. They’re being led by freshman Kennedy Sullivan who has made the transition to college look easy with the most strikeouts in C-USA.
For Coach Tudor, it’s been nothing out of the norm, “she dominated in high school, she dominated in travel ball, and she’s made the jump (to college) fairly easy.” When asked if she expected this consistency Tudor said, “expect it? Yes. Her mindset was right, and she’s put in the work and time. She’s a gifted athlete.”
The Hilltoppers pitching display doesn’t end with Sullivan though, as their pitching staff ranks second in conference play with a 2.31 ERA. Junior Kelsey Aikey and sophomore Shelby Nunn have been dealing. Although they’re in the top 20 in conference play for least innings pitched, when they get in the circle, they’ve torn it up. The duo is in the top five in C-USA for ERA with Nunn sitting atop the list.
WKU’s young pitching staff has been just one example of a youthful team building confidence and developing leadership. The Lady Toppers have taken that next step with ease this season as they only graduated one player last year. Sophomore Jordan Thomas has been a prime example of that. She moved from the outfield to the infield this year and has found herself in the top 15 in fielding percentage in Conference USA.
Engelhardt, “I think growth comes with experience, and having a year or two under your belt makes a huge difference. I think that the younger players have grown into leadership roles. It doesn’t really matter how old you are. We are really showing confidence and leadership.”
The Lady Tops confidence has continued to grow throughout the season. WKU has unleashed an eight-game winning streak recently including a 6-0 start to conference play, which is just the second time they have done so in school history. So, if you haven’t checked out the Lady Topper softball team yet, then you’re missing out on one of the best all-around team displays in Conference USA.