Year one of the Hayley Siebman experiment went quite well for the University of Saint Mary softball team last spring.

The Spires, having lost a large amount of players from the previous year, overcame some serious losses to injury as well and posted a respectable 20-29 record, but more importantly, finished 12-10 in Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference (KCAC) play, finishing in sixth place. They wrapped things up with a big first-round league tournament win over Friends.

Ultimately, the Spires would drop their final two games in competitive fashion – coming a strike away from playing for the league crown – and it is safe to say that ending has given rise to the hopes of a program that returns only seven players, but enough to have the wisdom Siebman needs to push the program forward.

After a first year worrying about just establishing a program, the Spires’ coach is now in a position where her comfort level is exponentially higher beginning a season and now it is more about building and solidifying relationships to further entrench what she wants for Saint Mary.

“I only had seven returners so two-thirds of my roster was new this year, but those seven knew what I wanted, what we needed to do to get through practice quickly, to lead and those leadership skills – and I am talking about sophomore, juniors and my two seniors are awesome – and know what we want, what I want, how it’s supposed to look and how it’s supposed to go and what I like and what I don’t like,” Siebman said. “They aren’t afraid to tell the newbies, ‘this is how we do it here,’ and there is some of that culture being established. With it being year two it has helped them a lot just knowing how last year went and moving into this year.

“It’s starting to make it fun for me a little bit. It was just (grinding) all the time last year. It didn’t seem like we knew what we were doing ever. They know now. I can take a little bit of that coaching hat off and relax a little bit more. We have the same expectations and standards and I still get on them, but you can see the relationships starting to build which has been fun.”

Siebman’s evolution and confidence in the program is evident to her captains.

“I can see how just the way (Siebman) is with everyone is a lot different. She seems a lot more comfortable and more comfortable being a head coach,” senior utility player Alana Renshaw said. “She is being more personal this year which will help us be a better team. I feel like last year she was putting in a name for herself and now she knows what’s going on and she wants to be closer with us.”

The team’s senior leadership sees the potential and what the team has available to them.

“Things are going really well, we have a lot of new bodies, but we have a lot of talent,” senior infielder Cassidy Harbert said. “I like our toughness in terms of the grind because we work out a lot. Nobody is complaining about it and everyone is wanting to get better.  We have speed and we have some power hitters. (In practice) we have had some girls hit some dingers which is encouraging.” 

The loss of pitching ace Carrie Lee, who shouldered a majority of the work from the circle and threw a majority of the big innings, will be an interesting task for this year’s staff.

“We are going to have to rely on everybody to step up,” Harbert said. “Our pitchers are looking good, it’s just about comfortability and getting used to how coach calls a game, but I see them settling into that. Since the fall, they just continue to improve. I think they know their role and are working toward that. They are accepting the weight, but they are taking it and running with it.”

In 2017 the team was dealing with a new coach and system and an influx of first-year players so it wasn’t a smooth ride until late.

“Last year team chemistry wasn’t there until we found it toward the end of the season whereas this season we have more altogether,” Renshaw said. “Last year, we relied too much on bigger players. If they weren’t doing their job, we weren’t doing our job.”

“I think (Renshaw) is correct and it’s tough when two-thirds of your team is new, but the new players seem to understand what my vision is,” Siebman said. “I think they bought in a heck of a lot quicker and the returners have really (set the tone). They are starting to run things. I get to practice, and practice is set up. A lot of coaches around campus will talk about how structured the program is and how structured the girls are. I am not sure I heard a lot of that last year.”

Nineteen players will now go into battle in year two for the Spires and they will have to replenish a pitching staff while getting the whole team ready to be a complete unit.

“We brought in two junior college pitchers and Sammy Torres will be a junior and still see some mound time and I can’t even 1-2-3 them, they are all so different,” Siebman said. “They all have different looks and strengths. Pitching will be the question mark (early in the season). We have good candidates, but they have to step up and get it done.

“We have a heck more depth on offense which is exciting and softball 101 is increasing around here. We have a lot of speed and some of those kids are slappers and some are just fast. We’ve had a few home runs and deep balls, some infield line drive shots, drag bunts and slaps. We’ll probably be searching for our offensive identity. Defensively, we are stronger and we have everyone in their primary position when we weren’t even close to that last year.”

Being picked to finish in the bottom half of the KCAC has the team fired up and ready to show some people what the real deal is coming out of Leavenworth.

“None of us like being picked seventh and feel we should be higher than that,” Renshaw said. “Just like last year, it lights a fire underneath us to be better than that because we were picked pretty low last year and we came out and showed everybody that we didn’t deserve that and we will do that this year too. (The KCAC tournament) showed we are capable of a lot of things. We just kept working and working.”

“I know the KCAC and I am trying to be patient,” Siebman said. “We were competitive. Maybe we’re picked seventh because we lost (Lee). I hope that fires them up a little. We split with some of the best teams last year and split with some of the lower seeded teams. Every game we have to come ready to go. It doesn’t matter who you play in conference or non-conference, you have to be ready to go.”

This weekend, the Spires begin play in Fort Worth at the Cowtown Classic and will play three games Friday (Bellevue at 9 a.m., Baker at 1 p.m. and Avila at 5 p.m.) and two on Saturday (William Woods at 9 a.m. and College of Saint Mary at 11 a.m.) with aims to just get their feet wet.

“I am excited to see some softball and see them compete,” Siebman said. “I love intrasquading, but I love seeing them compete against others. They turn it up a notch. It will be fun to see some of them and welcome them to our season and it will be interesting to see how the pitchers do. I plan to play to win, but I plan to get a lot of kiddos in there and again be patient until conference to see what the best recipe is.”

The Spires open their home slate Feb. 21 with a doubleheader against Park University with the first pitch at 1 p.m. KCAC play will begin March 24 with two games at Ottawa.