Competition at forefront of fall ball for SDSU Jackrabbits softball

South Dakota State’s Tori Kniesche pitches the ball during a game against North Dakota State on April 16. SDSU beat Nebraska and Wichita State in scrimmages this fall. (Andrew Holtan/Brookings Register)

BROOKINGS — The South Dakota State softball team has been a mainstay atop The Summit League for the last several years. This fall, head coach Kristina McSweeney has been focused on getting the program to a point where the Jackrabbits can contend among some of the best at the national level when the 2024 season gets started.

The Jackrabbits took a step with challenging themselves this fall. To go along with scrimmages versus Division II squads in Minnesota-Crookston and Sioux Falls, SDSU faced multiple high-level Division I opponents. The Jacks took on Nebraska and Arkansas, as well as Wichita State in a doubleheader, all on the road.

“It was a little intimidating for us at first,” McSweeney said. “For us, being able to see where we were to a top-notch opponent like those three schools gave us the push for us to know what we needed to do in the offseason. Playing those top-level opponents early, we were able to see both the little things and the big things that weren’t glaring. That will help us all the way around heading into the spring.”

The matchups featured several wins. SDSU claimed a 1-0 victory over the Huskers who were led in the circle by Jordy Bahl who most recently claimed back-to-back All-America nods and NCAA national titles at Oklahoma. The Jackrabbits swept the Shockers on their home field in Wichita, though the Jacks did have a setback in a neutral-site affair against the Razorbacks.

“We had a big win against Nebraska and two against Wichita State,” McSweeney said. “I think that really told us that we’re there and also where we do need to make the next push when this spring comes around.”

The Jackrabbits will have plenty of veteran leadership to rely upon.

Ten players hit over .300 and eight of them were returners from a season ago. Alexa Williams led the Jacks at the plate with nine extra-base hits. She, along with Lindsey Culver, had a team-best nine RBIs. Another pair of seniors in Rozelyn Carrillo and Jocelyn Carrillo had six RBIs apiece as well as junior infielder Mia Jarecki.

“The senior group we have put in a lot of time this summer,” McSweeney said. “They had a sour taste in their mouth in how 2023 ended and they were excited to get back to work.

“They’ve seen the benefits of what they’ve been doing. Their mindset right now is incredible. They’re working, pushing and know what they want to accomplish.”

The pitching staff, guided specifically by McSweeney, will continue to be a group of emphasis this upcoming season. Along with the exploits of two-time Summit League Pitcher of the Year Tori Kniesche, fellow seniors in Shannon Lasey and Williams had strong fall showings and are expected to provide an added boost next spring.

“Rounding out our pitching staff, TK, Shannon and Alexa this fall were solid,” McSweeney said. “Alexa showed that she needs the ball more. The saying for them is definitely, ‘last year best year.’ I feel like they’re all there. Hopefully they push our younger ones on what the expectation is when they leave.”

A highly noticeable movement that was evident with SDSU’s coaches in McSweeney and associate head coach Josh Bertke when they arrived were additions to the roster. This 2023-24 team has 14 newcomers on a team that is stacked in depth. The Jackrabbits return 14 letterwinners from a season ago and eight game-by-game starters.

Despite the number of returners SDSU has back, McSweeney said she can see multiple newcomers finding roles. Freshman Akayla Barnard stood out both hitting and in the circle for the Jacks, while fellow first-year Jackrabbit Abby Gentry had a strong fall in SDSU’s lineup hitting .300 with four RBIs.

The two were part of a double-digit total of players that are going through their first semester of college and are working through a brand new experience.

“Most of the girls that came in as our freshmen class were mine and Josh’s recruits,” McSweeney said. “Being able to see that class, freshmen bring this no fear attitude, because they haven’t experienced failure yet. We have a few that came in this fall that have brought a youthfulness you like to see when you go up against higher level competition.

“Bringing a fresh, excited group that believe they can compete along with the experience of our senior class is a really great mix.”

SDSU will have the next three months to practice and train ahead of the 2024 season which begins in February. During this time, McSweeney said the squad will continue to work on things that will make them better when the spring is here.

“We’re challenging them mentally and having them experience defeat and failure now,” McSweeny said. “They’re being pushed more than ever competitively so they know how to handle competition this spring. Really, that’s where our focus is.

“We kind of faltered at the end of last season in being mentally tough and not wavering competitively. We aren’t going to allow that to happen again, so this offseason is about making each skillset their best and about being able to compete at our best at any time.”