Waukon softball team returns 11 letterwinners as Joe O’Neill returns to head coaching helm


2015 Waukon softball returning letterwinners: Left to right - Front row: Regan Wasson, Allie Schwartz, Thea Meyer, Katie Kerndt, Kaley Benzing. Back row: Emma Johnson, Erika Johnson, Bethany Stock, Nicole Behrend, Madison Snitker. Not pictured: Leslie Sivesind.

An abundance of familiarity will make up the 2015 Waukon softball program, as 11 varsity letterwinners return from a squad that posted a 7-25 season record in 2014. And even though there will be a change at the head coaching helm of the Indian softball program this season, a familiar face will assume that lead role as well.
Joe O’Neill is not only familiar because he is an area native and 1992 graduate of Waukon High School, but he has also served as assistant varsity softball coach for the past two seasons and was also previously an assistant coach for the program in 1996 before assuming the head coaching role for a year during the 1997 season. A move to Forest City also resulted in a multi-year varsity assistant coaching role with those softball Indians as well.
Greeting the new head coach will be a collection of 26 girls in grades nine through 12 who have reported for early-season practice thus far. Among that total group are the 11 varsity letterwinners returning from last season, including several multi-year letterwinners.
A senior trio leads that veteran list, including Katie Kerndt, Thea Meyer and Allie Schwartz. The junior list of Kaley Benzing, Nicole Behrend, Leslie Sivesind, Madison Snitker and Bethany Stock provides the largest collection per class of returning experience, with the sophomore trio of Emma Johnson, Erika Johnson and Regan Wasson also coming back from a year of early varsity experience last season.
“I look for these girls to be great leaders, be willing to do what is best for the success of this team, and come to the diamond every day ready to get better,” Coach O’Neill said of his veteran returnees, also noting that a new head coach will result in some things being done a bit differently than in the past. “As a new head coach, I look for the entire team to be willing to accept some changes and be confident that what we are doing will result in success on the diamond. We will have multiple spots on defense that two or three girls will get a shot at playing. I want them to be supportive of each other and work to make each other better.”
With the graduation of just three seniors from last season’s squad, an abundance of statistical leadership returns for the Indian diamond dwellers. The one area not affected by graduation at all last season is pitching, where the Indians return all three of their team leaders from 2014 in Meyer, Sivesind and Snitker.
“Our three top pitchers are back from last year,” Coach O’Neill advised. “These three will keep us in ball games and give us a chance to win every night.”
Meyer returns for her fifth season in a varsity uniform in that pitching circle, and brings with her 128 of the Tribe’s 198 innings pitched last season. She led that Indian pitching trio in strike-outs, earned run average and opposing batting average and was Waukon’s lone All-Conference softball selection last season as an Honorable Mention recipient.
The Indian offense will also see a great deal of statistical leadership returning, as Benzing paced most of the Tribe’s offensive efforts in compiling team highs of 33 hits, a .367 batting average and an on-base percentage of .447. Schwartz was not far behind with second-best totals of 27 hits and a .290 batting average while posting her own team highs of 26 runs scored, nine doubles and three triples.
It is in that offensive category, however, that Coach O’Neill sees one of his team’s greatest needs for improvement from last season, at least in the aspect of producing final results. “Last year we struggled to score runs from game to game,” he said. “We have to do a better job of that this year.”
O’Neill sees this year’s team speed as hopefully being able to help solve some of that offensive riddle. “We are going to put some pressure on the defense with our overall team speed,” he remarked.
The Indians’ defense looks to be in similar shape, returning a number of contributing elements but needing to fine tune those aspects for an overall improved end result. “Defensively, we have a lot of pieces back from last year,” Coach O’Neill said. “Some girls may not be playing the same position they were last year, but I like our ability on defense. We also need to learn how to finish games. We were in a lot of games last year and couldn’t find a way to finish them.”
Combining that returning experience with Coach O’Neill’s desired improvement will be crucial to a step forward for the program in his first season in charge. “We need to work together as a team and continue to get better as the year goes on,” O’Neill noted. “We need to do a better job of putting the ball in play and score runs when we have the opportunity. Defensively, we need to limit our mistakes and stay away from big innings.”
The graduation of three seniors from last season took a bit of offensive statistical leadership and also left some holes at key positions. Kiersten Christianson and McKayla Stock took with them a shared runs batted in (RBI) lead and Jenna Jones recorded the fewest strikeouts of any consistent Indian starter at the plate.
“We need to find some girls to step up and fill those vacated spots,” Coach O’Neill said. “First base (McKayla Stock) will be one spot that we take a look at a handful of girls. (Sophomore) Deana Schlitter and Emma Johnson have been taking some early season reps at that spot. Our catching position (Jones) will be filled by Bethany Stock and freshman Audry Fahey. Christianson did a nice job for us in the outfield and at shortstop.  Allie Schwartz will be a nice fit for the shortstop position and we have several girls that will get some playing time in the outfield. Katie Kerndt, Madison Snitker, Nicole Behrend, (junior) Kaela Wood and Erika Johnson will all get some playing time in the outfield spots.”
Although not always working with full personnel in this season’s early going, Coach O’Neill has seen some promising early results in the first two weeks prior to this season’s playing schedule getting underway. “I am happy with how the season has started,” he said. “We have had a limited number of girls because of the golf/track seasons going on. The girls are coming to practice focused and working hard at getting better. We have a nice group of ninth graders that have really showed some improvement from last season.”
With pieces of the puzzle on the table, putting those pieces in the right place will be key to meeting the goals Coach O’Neill has laid out for his team. “Our goals are to move up in the conference standings from last year,” he said. “We want to be in every game and have a chance to win at the end, and we want to make a good run when tournament time arrives and ultimately get to the State Tournament.”
Climbing that Northeast Iowa Conference (NEIC) ladder from the Tribe’s seventh-place finish last season won’t be much of an easy task in the traditionally strong NEIC. One significant change in the league this season will be the absence of Oelwein at the varsity level of competition due to a lack of players.
“Waverly has been very tough the past couple of years and will be again this year,” Coach O’Neill said. “Charles City and New Hampton will also be very good. If we can get some timely hitting and play solid defense, I think we could be right there as well.”
 

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