Besides playing stellar defence at shortstop, SFU senior Taylor Lundrigan has had plenty to celebrate with outgoing coach Miek Renney, wielding a hot bat that has her sitting eighth in the GNAC with a .370 average. (Photo by Ron Hole property of SFU athletics)
Feature University Softball

Simon Fraser softball: Clan set to lean on GNAC’s best defence as battle for playoffs comes down to final weekend

BURNABY — Take a glance at their 2018 team picture on the Simon Fraser athletics website, and immediately you’re struck by the contradiction of a Clan softball team posing in full gear, while behind them, a snowstorm blankets their Burnaby Mountain home.

The pre-season photo isn’t so much a portent of a treacherous campaign to come, because against all statistical odds, this Clan team heads into the final weekend of Great Northwest Athletic Conference play beginning Saturday with a .500 record (12-12) and a sunny chance to make its first postseason appearance since 2013.

Rather, it’s the contrast of a spring sports team posed against the backdrop of winter, a study in polar opposites which has found its mirror image in the Clan’s own cumulative 2018 box score which has so distinctly scored feast on one side, and famine on the other.

Simon Fraser Clan softball posed in the snow to begin the season, but ever since, they have has brought the figurative sunshine to their 2018 campaign as they chase a playoff berth his weekend. (Photo by SFU athletics)

“If you look at those numbers,” one GNAC insider observed, “you can’t figure out how they do it.”

Simon Fraser’s team ERA of 4.62 stands at the bottom of the eight-team GNAC.

Yet the Clan’s fielding percentage of .974 is clearly the class of the conference, and at one stage this season, SFU’s defence was No. 2 in all of NCAA Div. 2 softball.

“Our defence has been stellar and I think it has balanced the weaknesses we’ve shown elsewhere,” said Clan head coach Mike Renney, who on Monday injected more drama into the weekend games when he announced he was retiring at season’s end following 24 seasons at the helm.

Given the hot and cold nature of his team’s defence and offence, Renney wouldn’t mind finishing out the regular season portion of his illustrious career with a bit of a warming trend.

The Clan (12-12) are currently knotted for the fourth-and-final playoff spot in the standings with Western Oregon, and SFU just happens to be in Monmouth on Saturday (12, 2 p.m.) to play a pair against the Wolves (12-12).

Simon Fraser then heads to Portland on Sunday (12, 2 p.m.) to round out the campaign against the cellar-dwelling Concordia Cavaliers (7-15).

“Realistically, I think we need to win at least three,” Renney said of qualifying for the playoffs and not having to rely on help.

While the Clan will face a Concordia team sure to be emotionally charged following its Seniors Day festivities on Sunday, the Wolves will play host to seventh-place Western Washington (7-17) on Sunday.

For Renney and the Clan, especially its gutsy core of seniors, the season has imbedded something of an underdog’s spirit within its DNA.

And when the numbers tell such a contrasting story, you can’t help but wear it like a badge of honour.

“Right now we’re last in pitching and second-to-last in hitting, so we’re scratching and clawing and kicking dust,” said Renney, whose team has leaned on a gutsy two-player pitching staff of workhorse Alia Stachoski (10-10, 3.81, 152 IP) and Jessica Tate (5-6, 5.55, 82 IP). “We’re playing for the breaks and usually breaks come from errors. We haven’t been making them and our opponents have.”

Talk about feast or famine.

SFU has committed a conference low 24 errors this season. By comparison, St. Martin’s, the next best team, has made 56 errors.

Ask Renney about the particulars of that defence, and he can’t help but start in the middle of the infield where he starts two seniors in shortstop Taylor Lundrigan and second baseman Victoria Saunders.

On the corners, junior Hailey Gearey has shown deft quickness at third, while Jessica Ferguson has been a revelation at first base, stepping in as a freshman following an early-season injury to Canadian junior national team member Amanda Janes during the Clan’s preseason trip to Australia.

Seniors Taylor Gillis and Dallas Tilley along with sophomore Chelsea Hotner have led the outfield, while senior catcher Katherine Murnaghan has been what Renney described as “the quarterback and the stabilizer” behind the plate.

SFU senior Taylor Lundrigran hopes she and the rest of her fellow seniors have made a positive and lasting impact on the culture of Clan softball in 2018. (Photo by SFU athletics)

In total, all six Clan seniors have played vital roles after initially coming into the program one season after SFU slipped to a program-worst 2-21 in 2014. They have effectively restored the roar.

“It’s so exciting and definitely the best of my four years here,” explained Lundigran of 2018 after her previous Clan teams went 5-19 (2015), 12-16 (2016) and 8-20 (2017) in the conference. “It’s nice to be leaving on a high note.”

Whatever happens this weekend, the 2018 season will be the end of a chapter in Clan softball, one marked by Renney’s retirement and 2019’s returning core of players having achieved something of a re-birth for the next head coach to work with.

With regards to the latter, Lundrigan feels most proud that she and her fellow seniors were able to leave a mark on the underclassmen.

“A highlight year for me was my second year here,” Lundrigan says of 2016. “We had some amazing seniors on that team, players like Alex Baylak and Rachel Proctor, and they took the team and said ‘This is the standard for how hard we work.’ Every class after that has worked to match that intensity, and this season, we really wanted to show that to the freshman class.”

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