HIGH EXPECTATIONS REMAIN FOR 2023 MARION SOFTBALL
No matter where you go on Marion's campus, it seems like there's something new going on with the Patriot softball program. Everything from new, red uniforms purchased during the off-season, to new players on the team. There's a new head coach, with a new stadium and facility that hosts the team. “There's a definite feeling of excitement around the building,” said first-year skipper Drake Rowton. “This group has always had a bunch of energy and loved the game, but for some of them it's their last run, and some of the younger players want to show what they can do. It's been a fun time to be here.” Adding to the excitement is the much-anticipated opening of Marion's state-of-the-art softball stadium and indoor practice facility. The field boasts a turf playing surface, expanded dugouts, upgraded bleachers and press box, and a brand-new scoreboard. The indoor provides space for hitting cages, locker rooms, coaches offices, and an area to lift weights. “It's just better and more convenient for us now,” said Rowton. “We have our space where we can get our work in and get better. It's really a college facility at the high school level.” Those facilities will allow Marion to host the 2023 Class 5A state baseball and softball tournaments for just the second time. The tournament will run May 11-13. Rowton became just the third head softball coach in program history last spring, succeeding the wildly successful Sean Gray, who took over for David Horton in time for the 2017 season. But Rowton is a rookie coach in name only. He spent four seasons on the softball staff under Gray, following a decorated baseball career that saw him earn all-state honors as a shortstop at Marion, all-region honors at Itawamba Community College, and second-team all-conference honors at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. “Our focus is to continue to make our program here the best that it can possibly be,” said Rowton. “We know the talent we have on this team, and we are always looking for ways to be as successful as possible. That's been our mantra all off-season.” With all the new over the off-season, Rowton and assistant coaches Anna Hurley and Rease Gairhan are also hoping for better luck in close games. Five losses by two runs or fewer, including three walk-off defeats, marred an otherwise strong 19-11 season. Marion finished as conference runners-up and advanced to the state quarterfinals for a second straight season despite the dramatic losses. “It does seem like the ball didn't bounce our way much last year,” said Rowton. “We did things that contributed to those losses, but it really was a weird stretch there that hurt us.” TEAM '23 Two-time all-state performer McKenzie Shinabery will start a third season in centerfield this spring. The senior baller finished 2022 with a .379 batting average with a .459 on-base percentage, and she topped the Marion stat chart with 37 RBI, and she was tied for second with 34 runs scored. The new this spring for Shinabery, who signed in February with Jefferson College, is a shift from batting third to leading off. She has responded so far by hitting .429 with an eye-popping .600 OBP, while already surpassing last season's home run total with two in three games. “I'm not worried about the change for 'Bery,” said Rowton. “Some of the concepts are a little different when you lead off compared to hitting in the middle of the order, but getting her as many at-bats as possible is what we are focused on now.” Rowton installed senior infielder Kelsey Baker and junior outfielder Kelsey Eppes as Team Captains during the off-season because “they're not afraid to say what needs to be said,” said the coach. “They're great players, but they also have those intangibles that we need.” Baker has twice earned all-league honors at second base, including a season ago when she batted .375 with a .442 OBP while blasting four home runs with 17 RBI. She finished second on the club with 18 stolen bases and 34 runs scored. The senior signed during the winter with Jefferson College and “the best is yet to come for her,” said Rowton. “It feels like she gets better every day.” Look for Baker to move around the infield more this spring, spending more time at shortstop and third base than she has in the past. Two-time all-conference outfielder Kelsey Eppes produced an industrious off-season after a 2022 season that saw her lead Marion with a .425 batting average and a .500 OBP, featuring 10 doubles, a pair of triples, two home runs, and 29 RBI. The patient Eppes walked (12) more than she struck out (eight). “With Eppes, you know she's going to always do everything 100 percent,” said Rowton. “She just does things right on the field, off the field, or come what may.” Marion boasts a pitching depth chart many would love to have this spring. Senior left-hander Anna Murphy missed the final 14 games a season ago with an injury, but she earned all-state honors as a sophomore. When Murphy went down, junior all-conference performer Anna Hitchman took the ball for Marion and pitched the Pats to an 8-3 record with 32 strikeouts in 56 innings. With sophomore Maddie Cupples in the mix as well, Marion's pitching should be a strength. “As bad as it was losing Murphy last year, it could pay off this year,” said Rowton. “We know they can all throw a ton of innings for us, and throw them well. We don't have to rely on just one person anymore. We have options, and that's really exciting.” Hitchman will play third base when she isn't pitching, and she batted .361 a season ago with a .490 OBP. She tied for the team lead with six home runs, and she paced the Pats with 38 RBI. The junior totaled 20 extra-base hits as a sophomore and scored 14 times. Murphy could play some first when Hitchman pitches, but “she will definitely always hit,” said Rowton. Murphy batted .319 last year with a .407 OBP, while she drove in 19 runs and struck six doubles before her injury. Cupples will see ample time this season at second base because “she's ready for an expanded role,” said Rowton. “We have to find time for her.” Senior Brianna Morquecho earned all-conference honors a season ago after her batting average jumped almost 100 points from the 2021 season. Morquecho will still appear at shortstop, but she'll also rep at second base. “With Baker and Bri up the middle, that is one of the better defensive middle infields in the state,” said Rowton. “Bri will hit in the top half of the order because she puts the ball in play, she can run, and she walks. Defensively, she's always been good, so we're not afraid to move her around some.” Senior catcher Jacey Holder starts a third season behind the plate and “I can't explain how far her bat has come this off-season,” said Rowton. “She's ready to hit in the middle of the lineup. She doesn't strike out much, and she hits the ball hard often. She's been a catcher first in her career, but she's an all-around player now.” Claire Hall started the last half of 2022 at first base, batting .326 with a .442 OBP and 12 RBI. As a sophomore, she earned the team's Captain Clutch award, and “she's taken that up a notch this off-season,” said Rowton. “She gets the bat in the zone and makes contact. If you need a ground ball, she can hit your ground ball. She's very much a team player, and she'll have her best year so far.” Junior Ella McConnell and sophomore Chloe Miller will earn ample at-bats this spring in a variety of roles. Miller projects at a corner outfield spot after starting six games a season ago, recording a crucial game-tying hit with two outs last April against Batesville. McConnell owns experience across the infield and “she can swing the bat,” said Rowton. “She gives us an immediate spark on offense.” Junior Makayla Griffin, sophomores Jordyn Stinson, Supriya Chowdhury, and Jayda Johnson, and freshmen Olivia Morquecho, Alexis Jones, Kendall Eppes, sister to Kelsey, and Serenity Nelson develop at various spots.
Marion Patriots Activities Network | 3/9/2023
Marion Patriots Activities Network | 3/9/2023