Following two straight trips to the American Southwest Conference tournament, and their first postseason victory since 2008 last year, the Howard Payne Lady Jackets are relying on a younger nucleus as they begin their quest to keep their postseason streak alive.
The Lady Jackets will host Pacific today in a 1 p.m. doubleheader, then welcome Austin College for two games Sunday before kicking off ASC action on Valentine’s Day against LeTourneau.
“It’s going to be a challenging year for us having such a young group of talented players,” said HPU head coach Jose Mata, whose roster features nine freshmen, four sophomores, three juniors and three seniors. “If we can keep our heads up during the first few tough games of the season we should finish up strong. We could be a strong six-, seven- or eight-spot team with such a young roster.”
HPU’s postseason aspirations could be aided by the addition of two teams in the ASC championship tournament this year, though more conference games have been added as well.
“I will miss the two-division format,” Mata said. “I think it’s going to be a little tougher with all the travel. Adding two teams was a plus for the new format because there are a lot of teams that are so close to each other’s level of talent.”
Though the Lady Jackets have several fresh faces on the 2014 roster, Mata considers this group one of the most coachable of his tenure. His greatest concern heading into the season opener is the inexperience on the pitching staff.
Among the veteran leaders on the roster are Early graduate Shandi Winstead and Amanda Cruddas.
“Shandi and Amanda are going to be two players we count on for leadership and strength on the defense,” Mata said. “They both bring a lot of maturity to the young infield group.”
No. 5 UT-Tyler (47-6, 23-1) and No. 8 East Texas Baptist (37-12, 18-6) are among the conference favorites, along with Mary Hardin-Baylor (29-16, 17-7), Louisiana College (26-15, 13-11) and UT-Dallas (23-18, 12-12). HPU (21-21, 15-9), Concordia (25-15, 14-10) and Hardin-Simmons (12-25, 10-14) are expected to round out the postseason qualifiers according to the ASC preseason poll.
“It’s going play out like we normally see it when you look at the top five teams,” Mata said. “The bottom three spots will be a dog fight.”
In order for the Lady Jackets to reach their full potential, putting early bumps in the road behind them will be the key, according to Mata.
“This team has a lot of talent,” Mata said. “If they can weather the early growing pains will tell the true outcome of this team. We have not had such a young team at one time in the program in a while, so this will be exciting and challenging.”