ANDERSON — The McDonald County Lady Mustangs dropped from Class 4 to Class 3 in softball and they play their first season in an expanded Big 8 Conference with 11 schools playing fall softball.
McDonald County head coach Skyler Rawlins and veteran assistant Lee Smith return several players from the district championship winning team of two seasons ago, including standout senior catcher Kylie Helm.
The Lady Mustangs hosted Big 8 rivals East Newton and Nevada for a jamboree Saturday, and they rolled over both opponents with a combination of strong hitting, pitching, defense, and even speed.
“Our defense,” Rawlins said of the strengths of the Lady Mustangs this season. “We have two good pitchers in the circle with Kaylee (Cornell) mixing it up in there. If you looked today at our offense, we have the chance to be explosive and we showed a bit of our speed. If we put all three together, I think we’ll be alright.”
Other contributors with varsity experience include junior center fielder Rita Santillan, junior shortstop Chloe Colvin, and junior third baseman Whitney Kinser, as well as sophomore pitcher Alexa Hopkins, who stepped in her freshman season for former McDonald County standout Paige Jones. It was Jones who outdueled Republic’s Rachel Rook in the district title game.
“I was counting earlier,” Rawlins said. “Think we have five juniors, maybe six juniors starting for us this year and a lot of them have got to start as freshmen and a couple worked their way up to fill those spots. Varsity playing time and familiarity are things we have right now and winning, they’ve been around some winning programs here. They know how to win and I think that experience of knowing what to expect every day has helped our younger ones.”
The Lady Mustangs will use more arms than in previous seasons.
“Lex Hopkins, as a freshman, threw every game for us last year,” Rawlins said. “Madeline McCall, as a freshman, has came up and given us some real good innings. We’ve also got Kaylee Cornell, who can change it up. She throws a little different than those two. They’ll give us a good 1-2 punch there and we’ve got some different things we can play around with now.”
Surely it will help both younger pitchers to be able to work with a four-year varsity starter behind home plate in Helm.
“She’s done a real good job of being a leader with this group,” Rawlins said. “She’s one of three seniors that we have. She’s done a really good job for us for four years. She started for us as a freshman and all the way through. I think she’s not taking it for granted. Hopefully, she’ll put us in a spot to see what happens.”
The Lady Mustangs did lose one Helm from the recent successful McDonald County softball teams, center fielder and leadoff hitter Cloee Helm.
The Lady Mustangs will utilize Santillan in both spots, and she’s got the potential to be a dangerous threat in the field, at the plate, and especially on the bases.
“Clooe held that position in center field for us for a while and was a great leadoff,” Rawlins said. “She set the table for the rest of our offense and we have to replace that. Rita, being in that 2 hole for the last three years, has filled that role and she’s still learning to be a leadoff hitter. We’ve still got some stuff to work on, but she’s doing a great job. When she gets on base, it can really cause problems defensively.”
McDonald County opens its season Monday and Tuesday with road games against Joplin and East Newton, respectively.
Joplin, Carthage, Neosho, and Nixa — all Class 4 schools — are on the Lady Mustangs’ schedule and that should help with district seeding at the Class 3 level.
“We’ve been in Class 3 before,” Rawlins said. “We’ve been one of the smaller Class 4 schools in that district in our area. We feel like we could compete in that district. We feel like we could win any district that we’re in, but it’s nice to get to go down. With that said, there’s some tough teams in that district with Seneca and Monett. Nothing’s easy. You’ve got to go out and play, and see what happens.”
Aurora, Carl Junction, and Cassville complete the six-team Class 3, District 12. Monett is the defending Class 3 state champion.
Aug. 27 — at Joplin
Aug. 28 — at East Newton
Aug. 30 — vs. Marshfield
Sept. 3 — vs. Carthage
Sept. 4 — at Reeds Spring
Sept. 6 — vs. Aurora
Sept. 7 — at Carl Junction, Hillcrest
Sept. 10 — vs. Neosho
Sept. 11 — at Seneca
Sept. 13 — vs. Cassville
Sept. 17 — vs. Nixa
Sept. 18 — at Lamar
Sept. 20 — vs. Nevada
Sept. 21-22 — Warrensburg Tournament
Sept. 25 — at Grove
Sept. 27 — vs. Logan-Rogersville
Oct. 1 — at Webb City
Oct. 2 — at Monett
Oct. 5-6 — Carthage Tournament