Finlandia softball extending momentum

HANCOCK – Winning really does breed more winning.

After a 26-8 record for the most successful season in school history last year, the Finlandia softball team has not missed a beat in 2013, opening the schedule with a 15-6 mark – the Lions started 15-5 in 2012 – despite replacing last year’s top pitcher and best two hitters.

Graduated are Brittany Garland (24-8, 2.01 ERA as a pitcher with a .432 batting average at the plate) and Kayla Sax (.470 hitting with a .791 slugging), but the mound duo of Miranda Brewer and Alyson Herman along with the arrival of impact-bat freshman Kristen Rose have kept FU chugging right along.

According to Lions coach Shawn Hendrickson, it is simply an attitude that drives the program right now.

“Those were two pretty good players,” Hendrickson said. “The biggest asset they brought was they helped change the tradition around here and we started winning. It makes it easier to recruit kids who are committed to doing the same thing.

“We have a lot of good kids – I actually think we are better at every position – who are committed to doing things the right way.”

And unlike last season when the Lions missed out on the NCAA Tournament despite a resume that suggested they might belong, FU can control its own destiny this time around.

Hendrickson will be spending the coming month building his roster for the newly-joined Great South Athletic Conference Tournament – and the automatic NCAA-qualifying bid that comes with winning it – rather than treating every game as a must-win as they have the last two seasons.

The conference affiliation after missing the postseason as a Division III independent has allowed for a more complete product on the field.

“It’s just a good thing for us,” Hendrickson said. “We don’t have to go through that scenario we went through last year trying to make it in (the NCAA Tournament). It changes the way you coach, really. You don’t have to play every game like it is the championship game, you can give other kids an opportunity to play. We have a ton of young freshmen who are pretty good and it gives them an opportunity to play. At every position, there is someone waiting to step up if someone is not producing.”

The development of Brewer and Herman is a testament to that.

Where last season the Lions relied on Garland to start 31 of 34 games, Hendrickson has had the luxury to flip between Brewer and Herman game by game this year.

The left-handed Brewer leads the team with a 2.25 ERA (and 89 strikeouts in 62 1/3 innings) while Herman has posted a solid 3.28 mark against slightly-tougher competition.

“They are both really doing quite well,” Hendrickson said. “(Brewer) is a left-handed pitcher and she throws that rise-ball, so she is more apt to get those strikeouts, but Alyson actually throws a bit harder, but she is right-handed so the strikeouts aren’t quite as high. We are really happy with both of them.”

Offensively, the Lions have been paced by the explosive start of the freshman outfielder Rose.

Initially leading off, Rose has forced a move to the coveted No. 3 spot in the order with a .438 average to go with a .781 slugging percentage. She leads the team in hits, runs scored, extra-base hits, walks, RBIs and has stolen eight more bases than any other Lions (13-for-14).

“I’m reluctant to talk her up too much, because I don’t want her head to get too big, but she is pretty special,” Hendrickson said. “She is just so quick, so explosive. she still has some things to improve on, but she is the real deal.”

Finlandia has posted over seven runs per game thanks to a quintet of hitters with an average above .333 and a slugging percentage above .450.

Along with Rose, India Slayback, Adriana Osuna, Herman and Alexis Lawley have paced a dynamic offense to start the year.

“We are starting to get to the point where we know who we can count on each game – and there are a lot of them,” Hendrickson said. “Those five have really made us tough up and down the lineup.”

Weather permitting, Finlandia will be in action this weekend for a four game set in Mankato, Minn.

The GSAC Tournament will be played April 26-28.