By Austin Chappell
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
The 2015 Oklahoma State softball team is unlike any squad the program has fielded over the course of its 27-year history.
Sure, the Cowgirls share certain aspects with a majority of their competition, including an experienced pitching staff, well-constructed team chemistry and an established senior class. The eldest of the bunch are Shelby Davis and Gessenia DeLaCruz, who came to Stillwater in 2012, only a year after the Cowgirls made a magical run to Women’s College World Series.
Put the squad on paper, though, and it’s easy to see why this year’s team has stood out from the rest; five contributing freshmen, and four in the Cowgirls’ opening day lineup.
“We lost a lot of experience from last year’s team, but I think we brought a unique ‘freshness’ into this season with the young kids,” head coach Rich Wieligman said. “They came in, and they wanted to play hard. They’re all just freshman, but they want to be the foundation that eventually builds a top-tier team.”
Fast forward more than 20 games into the season, and each member of OSU’s freshman quintet has compiled a vital amount of playing time and experience.
Vanessa Shippy, a high-profile newcomer from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, leads the pack with starts in each of the Cowgirls’ 22 contests. The tough, gritty freshman has served as one of the team’s most consistent offensive pieces, as she owns the squads’ third-highest batting average (.333) and leads the squad in runs scored and doubles.
Part of her success comes from a relentless work-ethic, but Shippy says a larger portion comes from her undying love for the game.
“I’ve been dreaming about college softball since I was five years old, so the fact that I’m here now and I’m actually getting to play is a dream come true,” Shippy said. I was so excited to step on the field for the first time and get things going.”
Joining Shippy as a leading offensive contributor is Mallory Collins, a power-hitting outfielder from nearby Sand Springs, Okla. After showing off her big bat in the fall, Collins delivered one of the most improbable moments of the year by hitting a home run in her first at-bat. The solo shot came against 14th-ranked Arizona, and gave the Cowgirls an early lead.
"I'm still kind of in shock that it happened,” Collins said. “I went into it with the approach of just trying to get on base, but I saw a pitch that I liked, and I was able to get around on it and put enough on it to put it over the fence. It's kind of a surreal feeling, but it was great to see how happy my teammates were for me as well."
Despite battling through injuries, Collins has launched three home runs, posted 14 RBIs and maintained a .321 average in 19 starts this season. She also plays a vital part in the Cowgirls’ outfield unit, where she is joined by senior Shelby Davis, junior Shianne Hughes and fellow freshman Maddi Holcomb.
Holcomb, a slap-hitting speedster from Richland, Texas, serves as a pinch-running specialist and defensive force in the outfield, but also plays the role of the light-hearted mediator who can always provide a laugh. Teammate Jessi Haffner says Holcomb is one of the most comical member s of the team, which has provided a big boost to the team chemistry.
“Sometimes, Maddi will say something, and I’ll have no idea what she’s talking about,” Haffner said. “At the same time, though, it’s Maddi, so everything she says is always funny. She does a great job of picking us up emotionally.”
Haffner began the year as the starter at first base, but has quickly become an enforcer in the circle over the past few weeks. She made her season debut on Feb. 28 against North Texas, and earned her first start against UMKC a week and a half later. She tossed a complete-game victory against the Roos, and has since compiled a 3-0 record and a stellar 2.13 ERA.
“Jessi has been great for us since earning her way into the rotation,” Wieligman said. “Since she started pitching, we’ve won seven out of ten games, so she has obviously given us a boost.”
Last, but most certainly not least, of the freshman bunch is Randee O’Donnell, a shortstop from Tahlequah, Okla. Despite having trouble in the field during the fall, O’Donnell has been huge at short this spring, showing off impressive range and a consistent arm.
Davis said the experience gained from playing early on has paid huge dividends for O’Donnell, as well as the rest of the freshman class.
"You'll see at least one or two freshman starting a lot of teams, but we’ll start three or four on a consistent basis,” Davis said. “Since they are so new to college ball, they're going to need some time to adjust, but having this many freshman play at the same time isn't just going to help them individually. It will also help them form a chemistry that they can build on for four more years."
The Cowgirls’ five starting freshman have begun to show signs of cementing a foundation for the up-and-coming wave of OSU talent. Since beginning the year on a 5-11 start, Oklahoma State has won seven of its last nine, and has posted two separate three-game winning streaks during the span.
Shippy, Collins, Holcomb, Haffner and O’Donnell have made their mark in the Cowgirls’ recent run of success, and have each improved throughout the first half of the season. One of the youngest teams in the nations has stuck with its daring approach, and the results have started to pay off.
“In the past, we’ve been so close in so many games,” Wieligman said. “I think, with these young freshman playing critical roles early on, that we can learn how to close out or come back in those tight battles. We’re talented, and with this bunch, I think we can surprise some teams this year and light a spark in this new generation of Cowgirls.”