Catchers key in MSSU/PSU softball matchup

Apr. 3—When the Missouri Southern State University softball team faces the No. 10 Pittsburg State University Gorillas in a doubleheader Saturday at PSU, there will be a lot on the line, and catchers will play a pivotal role for both squads.

The Gorillas (36-6, 10-2) sit in third place in the MIAA; Southern (28-9, 9-3) is one game back of PSU and fourth in league standings.

With seven series against MIAA teams left in the regular season, each game becomes more important as the teams vie for seedings in both the MIAA tourney and their spots in the regional rankings.

MSSU is on a six-game winning streak and suffered its last loss on March 22 against the Rogers State (Oklahoma) University Hillcats. The Gorillas have won four straight since falling to that same Rogers State team twice on March 23. The two one-run losses to Rogers State halted the Gorillas school-record 22-game winning streak.

And, of course, there are those coveted bragging rights on the line for both Southern and Pitt this Saturday at the Gene Bicknell Sports Complex at PSU.

The Lions were victorious in both games the teams played last season, posting 8-3 and 4-3 wins over PSU at Pat Lipira Field. They are 86-89 all-time against the Gorillas and 8-2 in their last 10 matchups.

While the Gorillas host a track meet a few blocks away on Saturday, there will likely be another track meet of sorts at the softball diamond.

Southern and Pitt are one and two in the league in stolen bases. The Lions lead the MIAA in stolen bags and have pilfered 113 bases on 126 attempts. PSU is second on the list, with 81 stolen bases on 88 tries.

That's where the catchers come in.

As a former backstop myself, I know one thing — most catchers love to face teams that run. Like pups chasing rabbits, it's the stuff of dreams.

This matchup features the top four base stealers in the league, making this game a catcher's delight.

Pittsburg State's Heather Arnett leads Division II and the MIAA in stolen bases and has been successful on 39 of 42 attempts. MSSU jackrabbit Yazmin Vargas is second in the MIAA and fourth in the nation in Division II after stealing 30 bases on 32 attempts.

But team speed for both squads doesn't stop at Arnett and Vargas. PSU's Hannah Burnett is third on the MIAA list and 11th in the nation with 26 steals on 27 attempts; Lion speedster Kylee Jacks is fourth in the MIAA and 16th in Division II with 26 steals on 29 tries.

Both Arnett and Burnett are on the National Fastpitch Coaches of America watchlist for D-II Player of the Year.

As a team, the Lions have held opponents to just 34 stolen bases on 42 attempts. Taylor Nuckolls is the third Lion to log double-digit steals this season after being successful on 15 of 16 attempts. MSSU's 113 stolen bags is currently second best in D-II behind Rollins College's 116.

On paper, Southern catcher Kate Thurman appears to be up to the task of impeding Gorilla runners. Neither catcher is likely to totally stop their opponents on the base paths, but Thurman certainly has the talent to make the Gorillas think twice before taking off.

Thurman is third in the league for gunning down wannabe base bandits. She has doused the scoring dreams of eight runners so far this year while starting in 34 of 39 games for MSSU. Only Northeastern State's Emily Sampson (9) and Fort Hays State's Madison Pierce (10) have frustrated more MIAA baserunners.

PSU has held its opponents to 26 stolen bags on 36 attempts.

Gorilla catcher Paxtyn Hayes is sixth in the MIAA, catching six of 11 runners on the bases. She, too, will work to slow the opposing team's speedsters.

Thurman has given up just three passed balls this season for Southern and Hayes has two for the Gorillas.

So when the first pitch of the MSSU/PSU doubleheader is delivered from the circle at 1 p.m. Saturday, my eyes will be on the catchers. And as a former pup chasing rabbits, I have a plea to both coaches — please limit the off-speed stuff.