The Howard Payne Lady Jackets kick off their 2017 softball season today in Brownwood, playing host to Austin College in a 1 p.m. doubleheader. HPU will be looking to build off last season’s 16-22 campaign (12-18 in conference play), but will be doing so by switching a couple of things up from the way they were done just a year ago.

Quite possibly the biggest change made by head coach Jose Mata is the number of non-conference games the Lady Jackets will play, which he hopes will help bolster the team’s confidence heading into conference play. Howard Payne is the only school in the American Southwest Conference to begin their season this soon and, according to Mata, there’s good reason for that.

“The main thing with starting this early is to gain more experience,” said Mata, who’s entering his seventh year coaching the Lady Jackets. “Last year we only got four games in before conference play and I didn’t think that we were where we needed to be at that point. I felt we needed more time, so this year we have scheduled our season to start earlier than normal and to have more non-conference games than normal. I didn’t want to go through that again.”

Mata’s approach to scheduling games also slightly varies from most other teams in the conference.

“The way our schedule is designed, you can actually have up to six non-conference games throughout your season,” Mata explained. “I wanted to take full advantage of that by using all six up front. Many teams will play a few games, then use the rest later on by intertwining them over the course of the season. That’s not how I wanted to do it. I scheduled all six up front so we can gain experience and build as a team going into conference play.”

The Lady Jackets will definitely need to gain that experience in a hurry due to the team being much younger than normal this season. In fact, only six of the 18 players on the roster are upperclassmen and nearly one-third of those 18 are freshmen.

However, the team believes that they have just the right mix of players for something special this year.

“It really is a good mixture,” said Mata. “I’d say we are more new than we are old. We are young for the most part, but we have some really good transfers that came in and we have some key returners that are going to help us a lot. The last few years we’ve had retention and had the older experienced players, but we weren’t able to get over the hump. Now I feel like we have just the right mix of players and it should compensate for what we were lacking last season. I feel great about this group going forward.”

“I feel like we are more talented as well. Not only that, but their attitudes are different than in the previous years. This group is a lot more competitive for sure,” Mata added.

With the talent level on the rise for the Lady Jackets, it’s safe to say expectations for the team and the upcoming season are on the rise as well.

“We’re just all around a better group and I truly believe that,” Mata said. “Our pitching is improved and our bullpen is going to actually be better than it has been in the last three years. We have pitchers that we can just plug in at anytime and they’ll be able to lead this team. It’s not only the pitching though, because our offense should be improved too. We’ve added some big hitters, especially through transfers and we’re really excited about that. There’s a lot more to our offense than there has been in awhile. We’re going to hopefully be more explosive on offense. That’s the blueprint anyway. It’s very exciting and the future looks to be much brighter going forward.”