A hard-hitting, slick-fielding infielder fresh out of Derby (Kan.) High School, Katie McGeeney came to the Wichita State softball program last year with impeccable credentials.
A first-rate prospect to be sure, she was MVP of the Ark Valley League, a three-time all-state selection, and she batted a lofty .590 as a senior.
But Shocker pitcher Margo Pruis recalls that McGeeney was far from impressive when fall workouts began. “It’s funny looking back because I remember at our first practices she just looked scared all the time,” says Pruis, who chuckles at the memory because, one very memorable season later, it’s difficult to imagine McGeeney as a fearful, nervous newcomer.
After starting the season as a mere pinch hitter, McGeeney quickly worked her way into the lineup and went on to enjoy one of the best freshman seasons in WSU softball history.
In 26 Missouri Valley Conference games, the outfielder hit .455 and led the league in hits (40) and runs scored (28). Those numbers, described by coach Tim Walton as “gaudy,” earned McGeeney the conference’s Newcomer of the Year Award and a spot on the all-conference team.
McGeeney was just one of numerous players who enjoyed outstanding seasons for WSU, which advanced to the NCAA Tournament for only the second time since the program started in 1974.
WSU lost both of its games in the regional in Norman, Okla., but that didn’t dampen enthusiasm for a Shocker team that has been on the rise since Walton took over in 2003. “Playing in a regional was a great experience,” McGeeney says. “It was really exciting for us to go as far as we did.”
The team’s leadoff hitter, McGeeney was the catalyst for the hard-hitting Shockers, who outscored opponents 293-122 and had a 52-26 edge in home runs.
She says she follows Walton’s coaching philosophy and enters the batter’s box with a plan. “You have to have a good mentality and know what’s happening in the game, know what the count is, know what you’re looking to do. You have to hit with a purpose. I don’t look for a certain pitch. I just look for a strike, obviously, something I can get a hold of and hit hard.”
McGeeney, a left fielder at WSU after occupying the middle-infield spots in high school, was among the conference leaders in several offensive categories. Even though she hits leadoff, however, her name is nowhere to be found on the walks list.
That’s because she doesn’t get cheated in the batter’s box. “I love her attitude and her desire,” Walton says. “She goes up there to hit.”
McGeeney didn’t have many unsuccessful plate appearances this season — her on-base percentage was a healthy .443 — but she suffered with every single out. That attitude that Walton loves was easily visible when she lost a battle with an opposing pitcher.
“Every time she’d make an out, she’d come back to the dugout completely frustrated and be like, ‘I can’t believe that,’” Pruis says. “It fueled her for the next at-bat, and she’d come back and get a hit. She set the tempo for us.”
Once on base, McGeeney benefited from having numerous teammates capable of driving her in.
Catcher Jill Darling, best known for her outstanding defense, had a breakout year at the plate, hitting .331 a year after she struggled to a .159 mark as a sophomore. Skilled at blocking pitches and throwing out would-be base stealers, Darling joined McGeeney on the all-MVC team.
“She had a terrible offensive year last year,” Walton says. “But sometimes a player catches so many games that they tend to let down at the plate. I was very, very proud of her this year.”
Third baseman Stephanie De La Riva was named to the conference’s second team. She hit 12 home runs, tying Ashley Lynn for tops on the Shockers, and led WSU with 44 RBI.
WSU’s offense was no doubt potent, and the team’s pitching was equally strong, thanks to the 1-2 punch of Lindsay Craig and Pruis.
Craig, the team’s only senior, earned first-team conference honors by posting a 22-8 record and a 1.96 earned-run average. She ended her outstanding career as WSU’s career leader in wins, appearances, innings pitched and strikeouts. “We’ll miss Lindsay a lot,” McGeeney says.
True, but Pruis appears more than capable of taking over as the team’s ace. She was 20-8 with a 2.05 ERA and struck out 212 hitters in 180 innings pitched. How well the 6-foot-1 right-hander handles the responsibility of being the clear No. 1 pitcher is “the biggest question mark we have for next season,” Walton reports.
Pruis, who was 14-5 as a freshman, sounds confident. “I’m sad to see Lindsay go because we’re best friends, but I’m looking forward to having a good year next year,” she says. “Coach Walton is giving me the ball and putting it on me, and I’m just going to be glad to take it. I’m looking forward to leading the team.”
Many in the program share her excitement about next season, given the team’s steady progress under Walton, a former baseball player and assistant softball coach for the Oklahoma Sooners.
The Shockers won 38 games in 2004 and increased that total to a school-record 46 this season. After receiving an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, which proved WSU is gaining respect across the country, the Shockers lost to Oklahoma and Oregon in regional play.
The outcome may have been disappointing, but Walton says the Shockers proved they could play with the nation’s elite teams. “We knew going in that they were going to be tough games,” he says. “What I like best is the fact that we didn’t go down there and roll over. We fought, we battled.”
With nearly the entire team returning next season, Walton says he is eager to see if WSU can continue to raise its level of play. Again, Pruis is confident.
“I think everybody was sad or disappointed we didn’t win a game (at regionals), but just the fact that we got there was huge,” she says. “We didn’t get blown out or anything, so we know how we compare against the top teams.
“We know we’re gonna be good next year. We’re excited.”