Dixie State softball looks for return to top as season opens

Dixie State University hopes for a return to the NCAA Tournament | Photo by Robert Hoppie, ASPpix.com, St. George News

ST. GEORGE – The Dixie State softball team opens up season play on Thursday with a doubleheader against Northwest Nazarene. After playing for the NCAA Division II National Championship two years ago, many saw last year as a step back for Dixie State. However, the Trailblazers still went 36-15 and were one of only 64 teams that received an invitation to the NCAA tournament.

Dixie State fans will get to see a lot of their team early. After two doubleheaders against NNU and Montana State-Billings, the Trailblazers will host the Dixie State Easton Classic involving 15 teams Feb. 9-11.

“There was actually some complexity in arranging the schedule,” said Dixie State head coach Randy Simkins. “We made sure that teams did not play conference rivals nor other teams already on their non-conference schedule.”

Dixie State University vs. California Baptist University, Softball, St. George, Utah, Apr. 11, 2016, | Photo by Robert Hoppie, ASPpix.com, St. George News

Dixie State will face a few teams that play in the RMAC, the conference that the Trailblazers will move to in 2018-2019. Immediately after the Classic, Dixie State will have a doubleheader against Colorado Mesa, another RMAC team, before heading south to play in the Cactus Classic in Tucson, Ariz.

“That is another packed invitational,” said Simkins. “We will play West Texas A&M twice to end the classic. They are perennially a nationally-ranked team.”

The Trailblazers will then return home to face another national contender, Adelphi, before starting their conference schedule.

The Blazers were picked to finish second in the PacWest, four points behind Cal Baptist. But four separate teams picked up first-place votes. Reigning champion Azusa Pacific is picked to finish third while Concordia, who finished a game behind DSU and CBU for fourth last year, is picked to finish fourth.

“All four of the teams at the top are capable of winning the conference,” said Simkins. “And you really can’t count out Hawaii Hilo either. Our conference is one of the better ones in the nation.”

INFIELD

Simkins was still unsure who would start opening day at a few positions. “Right now I am only definitive in two spots,” said Simkins. “(Josey) Hartman will be at short and (Mallory) Paulson will be at first. They have proven themselves with their play over the last few years.”

Dixie State’s Josey Hartman (15) | Photo by Robert Hoppie, ASPpix.com, St. George News

Hartman is the heart and soul of the infield. She has started all four years at the position and is known for her speed, aggression and accuracy fielding the ball. Hartman has a .929 career fielding percentage, converting 590 of 635 attempts. She has also stolen 45 bases in 51 attempts.

Paulson took over play at first last year on a consistent basis. Before that she rotated in and out of the lineup and also DH’ed on the team that won 50-plus games and played in the NCAA championship game.

At second base, Bailey Gaffin appears to have earned the spot. Gaffin started seven games and played time there at the end of last season, replacing Dani Bartholf.

Bartholf and Cassidy Morton are battling to see who will start at third base. Batholf started 44 games last year at second and third base. She batted .284 and fielded at a .948 clip. Morton started 22 games at 3rd base. She hit .263. Brooklyn Beardshear may also see time at third base when she is not pitching. Beardshear hit .298 and had a .974 fielding percentage.

Jessica Gonzalez will take over for Autumn Woodfall at the catcher position. Gonzalez started a few games at catcher, but played most games as the designated hitter. “Through most of the season last year, she was our most productive hitter,” said Simkins. Gonzalez was second on the team in batting average (.393), first in home runs (6), first in RBIs, second in slugging percentage (.616) and second in on-base percentage (.489).

OUTFIELD

Janessa “Cheetah” Bassett will play in centerfield. After being named All-American as a freshman two years ago, Bassett has taken over the mantle of leadership through her play. She led the team last year in batting average (.474), slugging percentage (.636) and on-base percentage (.526). Bassett’s speed and arm also allow her to make spectacular fielding plays.

Dixie State’s Janessa Bassett | Photo by Robert Hoppie, ASPpix.com, St. George News

In right field, Taylor Godfrey will likely be the opening-day starter, though she is getting a push from newcomer Kenzie Sawyer. Godfrey started four games last year, but was used mainly as a pinch runner or hitter. “Taylor has the best arm on the team,” said Simkins. “You want to have that in right field.”

Sawyer is challenging Godfrey for the spot however. Sawyer is a Canyon View alumnus. She was invited to walk on after graduating in 2015, but chose to attend Western Nebraska Community College. “It was a good choice,” said Simkins. “She likely would have sat here playing behind All-Americans. Instead she went to Nebraska and was an integral part of a national contender.”

Sawyer led WNCC to 50-plus wins in her two seasons. She set the school record for home runs (45) and doubles (46). She led the team last year in RBIs (85) and was second in runs scored (80). She batted .480 and had a slugging percentage of 1.008.

Shelby Yung will move from her position in right field last year to the other side of the field in left. Yung batted .365 and was third on the team in on-base percentage at .468. Yung had a perfect fielding percentage, committing no errors in 51 games.

Freshman Brenna Hinck is the principal backup and could see time at any of the three outfield positions.

PITCHING

Gone is Aryn Feickert, who was the primary ace last year and the two years before that formed a dominating duo with contrasting drop ball pitcher Michelle Duncan.

Dixie State’s Brooklyn Beardshear | Photo by Kevin Luthy, St. George News

Beardshear will take over as the No. 1 pitcher. She had an ERA of 2.30 last year, going 12-4. She appeared in 25 games, started 18 and pitched 10 complete games. “Brooklyn has a versatile pitch arsenal,” said Simkins. “She can throw the drop ball, the rise ball and has a good curve ball.”

Alex Melendez is pushing for the number two spot in the rotation with Madi Dove and Alexis Barkwell. All three saw limited action last year. Melendez can also throw both the rise and the drop. She also has a change up and screwball. Barkwell is similar to last year’s ace, Feickert, in that her rise is her best pitch. She had an ERA last year of 2.56 and went 3-2. Dove throws the drop ball well. She went 1-1 and appeared in seven games in 2016. Freshman Kaycie Jensen will also see playing time at pitcher.

“Jensen is a freshman out of Springville,” said Simkins. “She throws hard. Right now she is working on her consistency. Once she has that she will be very dangerous.”

DESIGNATED HITTER

“I can honestly say with conviction that we are deeper than any team in the country at the DH position,” said Simkins.

Arista Honey returns and will probably grab the spot on opening day, but depending on how the lineup shakes out, Dixie State could also use Sawyer or Riley Tyteca at the position. “All three of them are hitting the ball well,” said Simkins. “Depending on how the rest of the lineup plays out game-to-game, we could use one or all of them at different times.”

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