Missouri Southern begins 2024 season in Arkansas

Feb. 1—As Americans get word Friday morning from Punxsutawney Phil on an early spring or long winter, the Missouri Southern softball team will be preparing for a doubleheader in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Phil has been giving weather predictions from his home at Gobbler's Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, since 1887, and Feb. 2 has been called "Groundhog Day" ever since.

Phil has his set of fans who are excited to watch him come out of the ground and see if he sees his shadow — six more weeks of winter — or stays out to signal the arrival of an early spring.

There is a current trend with Phil and the Lions. For three years straight, the famous groundhog has seen his shadow and predicted a long winter. And each time, MSSU has had a winning season.

The Lions have went 97-55-1 over the course of those three seasons, and won 41 games last year.

No matter what is predicted in Pennsylvania, Southern returns a solid core from that 41-win team. Returning impact players are Yazmin Vargas (OF), Peyton Hawkins (UTIL), Carsen Tinkler (IF), Adrianna Young (OF), Kara Amos (P/UTIL), Abby DeSanto (3B), Avery Tallman (P), Emily Perry (UTIL), Natalie Bates (P) and Katie Gray (IF).

The Lions also graduated some players and a big loss on the diamond is Josie Tofpi.

"Losing your five-year starting shortstop ... that's something to say in itself," head coach Hallie Blackney said. "Josie Tofpi was the epitome of consistency."

Tofpi returns but will be coaching alongside Blackney this year instead of manning the shortstop position.

"Obviously graduating the six kids that we did, those are huge shoes to fill," Blackney said. "But we also brought in 11 whether they are freshmen or transfers. This is the most competitive our practices have been in the six years I've been here."

'great problem to have'

That competition in practice is referring to players vying for a starting spot on the team. Blackney considers the competition to be a "great problem to have."

Sophomore newcomer Taylor Nuckolls will be competing for those positions up the middle this year along with former Webb City standout Peyton Hawkins, junior transfer Madison "Dink" Grimes and Perry.

Amos was mostly used as an extra hitter last year if she wasn't pitching. Look for her to get a good look at the second base position when she isn't in the circle in 2024.

MSSU will feature speed and power in its lineup as it usually does but might be anchored by its defense and pitching in 2024. Blackney noted that it will be important to use this first month of the year to find the team's true identity.

"In my opinion we're brand new. Especially up the middle (second baseman and shortstop)," she said. "We're going to have to figure that out (identity) in preseason and hopefully have it all ironed out by conference season."

Tallman started 22 games last year and finished with an overall record of 19-4 with a 2.32 earned run average. Her WHIP (walks plus hits, divided by innings pitched) was 1.2. She will come into this season hoping to use some new pitches she added to her repertoire over the offseason.

"Every year as a pitcher, as a hitter, just as a softball player, you have to kind of reinvent yourself," Blackney said. "Because teams will continue to scout you. (Tallman) didn't throw much as a freshman but then she was all-conference last year. This is the most consistent I've seen her. She has developed some new pitches. She won't be known as only a drop ball pitcher this year."

Vargas brings back a lot of the speed for MSSU as Blackney considers her "the fastest kid in the conference." The 5-foot senior stole 36 bases last year and was only caught once.

As the Lions look to build off the season they put together last year, Blackney reminds her team that there's a fine line between confidence and arrogance. There are expectations to be winning a lot of games but coach wants her group to remain confident and nothing above that.

"It's all about who we are and what we do," Blackney said. "We have to make sure we're maximizing our potential every day. ... I'm excited to see where we're going to start this weekend. But that's only the starting point. That's all it is because we will continue to work and get better from there."

MSSU's first game in the Ronnie Hawkins/Mike McGhee Memorial Tournament is at 2 p.m. Friday against Southwestern Oklahoma State University. At 4:30 p.m., Southern faces the University of Arkansas at Monticello. The Lions travel over to Arkadelphia, Arkansas, on Saturday for a 10 a.m. game with Henderson State University and one with Ouachita Baptist University at 12:30 p.m. There is one game scheduled for 10 a.m. Sunday against Henderson State back in Arkadelphia.

The Lions will be in Arkansas the first two weekends of the season and then head to Oklahoma on the weekend of Feb. 16 before coming home finally on Tuesday, Feb. 27, to host Delta State University for a doubleheader.