The Red Devils are Mashing

Photos courtesy of Summer Inselmann and Michelle Curl.
Photos courtesy of Summer Inselmann and Michelle Curl.

By Blake Baxter

The last time Eureka softball fans gathered for a doubleheader at Sweitzer Field, they saw Morgan Ledbetter go from home run hero in Game 1 to the top of the EC record book in Game 2.

The historic moment occurred in the first inning.

With one powerful swing of the bat, the junior from Hanna City, Illinois, sent a misplaced pitch soaring past the left-field fence and her team storming out of the dugout to greet EC's new single-season home run record holder.

The home run was Ledbetter's 11th of the season, putting her ahead of EC assistant coach Kelli Dunne, who had 10 in 2013. She stopped her familiar home run trot at first base to give Dunne a hug.

"She was cheering me on all season long," Ledbetter said. "Every single home run I hit, she was just as excited as the team.

"My teammates, they get more excited than I do. They're just awesome. They literally love every second of it."

Ledbetter, who transferred from Culver-Stockton this year, is having a scintillating debut season with the Red Devils. She's currently second in the nation in slugging percentage (1.012), third in home runs per game (.42), tied for 11th in batting average (.512) and is one of only 16 players to have tallied 11 dingers.

She didn't hit like this in her first two collegiate seasons, but she says a change of scenery and a green light from coach Debi Neff have made her more comfortable and confident at the plate.

"It's all about having confidence behind you," Ledbetter said. "And with my team having confidence behind me, and my coach having confidence behind me, I feel like I can hit anything."

But she's not the only one in EC's lineup knocking long balls and putting up big numbers at the plate this season. The Red Devils, you see, are mashing, often with power and always with purpose.

And they're having a lot of fun doing it.

"I've never been on a team like this before," sophomore Allison Cagley said. "It's a first."

Heading into this week's games, the Red Devils led the nation in batting average at .419 and runs per game at 8.3. They're fourth in doubles per game (2.23), fifth in slugging percentage (.577) and 14th in home runs per game (.92). Plus, No. 2 hitter Sydney Shubert is second in the nation in batting average, hitting a sizzling .571.

As a team, EC is only a few bombs away from posting a new program record for home runs in a season. The 2013 team tallied 26 in 37 games. The 2019 team has already notched 24 in 26.

"The group of hitters that we have, it's hard to beat," freshman Raelyn Payne said. "It's a pretty great feeling on the defensive side of things knowing that if we're the home team and the other team scores a couple runs on you, there's no pressure.

"It's not like we get nervous or tighten up, because we know we haven't gotten the chance to hit yet, and we all have belief in our hitting as a team."

With her 5-foot-4 stature and slight frame in the leadoff spot, Payne doesn't look like a power hitter, and historically, she hasn't been one, either; prior to this season, she'd only hit four home runs total.

But this spring, she's hammered six, including one in her first at-bat at her new home field. She's now tied with junior teammate Erin Smith for most EC homers in a single season by a freshman.

Among the most memorable was a seventh-inning solo home run when Eureka was trailing by three in a crucial St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference game against Greenville.

Two batters later, junior Morgan Osborn crushed a two-run shot, and two batters after that, Ledbetter went yard to tie game. The Red Devils ultimately prevailed in the eighth inning.  

Comebacks and close wins have been close to the norm with this group.

That same week, there was an eight-run, seventh-inning rally that resulted in a 10-9 win over Fontbonne, and the week prior to that, the Red Devils pieced together a four-run comeback in an 8-7 win over MacMurray.

In Tuesday's sweep over Lincoln, the Red Devils won both games by a combined three runs, and just last week, the team scored a 3-2 victory over Westminster that featured Cagley's third home run of the season.

After contributing zero jacks, one double and batting .262 last year, Cagley has raised those numbers to three, nine and .322.  In the first home series of the year against Blackburn, she put the run-rule into effect by launching her first career home run.

"I honestly don't remember going around the bases," Cagley said, "because I was so excited."

Fellow sophomore Adrianna Zeman's statistical incline has been even steeper. A year after recording a .290/.351/.360 slash line, she's up to .430/.459/.557.  All eight position players in the batting order – from Shubert to Ledbetter, Osborn, Zeman, Payne, Faith Bachtold and Cagley – are hitting .320 or better. Payne, Zeman, Osborn, Ledbetter and Shubert are above the .400 mark.

Osborn, the team's three-year starting catcher, has never been a star slugger – she batted seventh at Washington High School – but she's improved her batting average every year and is now a reliable hitter in the three hole for the Red Devils. She's currently batting .436 and leading the team in doubles (12). On Tuesday, she entered EC's top 10 in career RBIs with 81 in 92 games.

Like Cagley, she has three home runs on the year.

Neff insists that the Red Devils aren't straining to swing for the fences; she preaches line-drive hitting in practice. But all these big hits and rallies sure are keeping fans entertained. They've helped result in the program's fourth consecutive 20-win season – a program first – and put the squad in the thick of a contentious conference playoff race.

Going into Friday's doubleheader at Principia, the Red Devils (20-6 on the season) are tied with Iowa Wesleyan for fourth in the SLIAC with a 10-4 league record. Only the top four make the tournament. Greenville and Westminster are both ahead of them and have completed conference play at 13-5, while Spalding sits atop the standings at 10-2.

EC hosts Spalding in a home doubleheader on Sunday at noon to complete the regular season. If the Red Devils win all four games this weekend, it will earn at least a share of the SLIAC title. Stumble along the way, and they could find themselves just on the outside looking in for the third straight year.

"With this being my third year, the last two years falling one game shy, it gives me goosebumps to think about going to the tournament," Osborn said. "It's something that I've wanted to do and that I've wanted my team to do since we got here, and just being so close and knowing that we have so much potential to do that and even win the conference this year, is crazy.

"I've learned that we need to write our own destiny."

It's all in their powerful hands now.