Best season in more than a decade propelling Gators to possible tournament appearance

SF State Gators infielder Kayli Shaw singles against the Sonoma State Seawolves at the SFSU Softball Field, Wednesday, April 6, 2016. (Taylor Reyes / Xpress)

SF State softball is having one of its best seasons in more than a decade as the team primes itself for a playoff spot in the NCAA Division II tournament next month.

Under new head coach Lisa Allen, the team has ground its way to a 23-20 record, already their highest win total in the past six years.

The last time the Gators were in the playoffs was during the 2006 NCAA Division II West Regional Tournament, and their regular season run this year is priming the team to end its decade-long playoff drought. The Gators currently rank fourth in the California Collegiate Athletic Association with a 17-13 conference record and control their own destiny for the rest of the season.

It’s an exciting time for the team, but they know there’s plenty of softball left to play. With ten games left in the season, the Gators face crucial games against conference opponents Humboldt State and Chico State.

“Yes, this is an exciting time and we’ve done a lot, but remember – it’s not over yet,” senior pitcher Jenny Obbema said.              “A lot of things can happen, hopefully for the good. As much fun as it’s been, we want to continue playing Gator softball and doing what we know to do.”

Obbema, who’s had a solid season with a 3.60 ERA and five wins, has been part of the SF State softball program since her freshman year. She said the team environment is more energetic, lively and jovial, and that’s where the difference lies this year compared to past years.

“We definitely have each others backs. It’s not one player doing the whole job,” Obbema said. “We are a team sport so understanding that and being able to realize that if one person is having an off day, then there’s eight other people that will help them out.”

Team support has been a common theme that has come up throughout the season. Players recognize they rely on one another in order to win.

SF State Gators infielder Kayli Shaw singles against the Sonoma State Seawolves at the SFSU Softball Field, Wednesday, April 6, 2016. (Taylor Reyes / Xpress)

SF State Gators infielder Kayli Shaw singles against the Sonoma State Seawolves at the SFSU Softball Field, Wednesday, April 6, 2016. (Taylor Reyes / Xpress)

The Gators’ journey back to tournament contention has been a long road, and both coach Allen and assistant coach Taylor Nelson have implemented a team-first mentality.

“The girls really play for each other,” Allen said. “Our girls do a good job of picking each other up and saying, ‘Hey, I got your back.’ The girls will come into dugout after an unsuccessful at-bat and ask for help.”

Junior pitcher Megan Clark, who’s having her best season with a 11-7 record and 2.32 ERA, has been one to repeatedly say her victories come with the help of the defense. She said she relies on her defense because she’s not a strikeout pitcher. In her three years in the program, she’s also noticed a culture change.

Allen has worked closely with the pitchers, and both Obbema and Clark have reaped the benefits of her knowledge of the game. Obbema and Clark pointed to Allen’s ability to build relationships with the players, providing feedback and positive reinforcement.

“Having someone to ask for knowledge of the game and get an answer besides just, ‘Spin the ball’ is helpful,” Obbema said.

Clark said that Allen’s playing career as a catcher provides a different perspective to pitching.

“She sees things that (pitchers) don’t see,” said Clark. “She knows what she’s doing, which is something you look for in a coach.”

In order to continue to maintain this level of success, the team must stay focused on the fundamentals they’ve been working on since the start of the season. Allen said the first four weeks of summer were spent on footwork, handwork and honing in on mechanics. Most importantly, she spoke about the process of winning during those first weeks.

“Winning isn’t an easy thing, it means putting in extra time than you really want to,” Allen said. “You have to know what you want to do for your teammates and sometimes that requires more work.”

The Gators have been producing well offensively this season, giving Clark and Obbema plenty of run support. Shortstop Jennifer Lewis is having another solid season, hitting .312, with one home run and 15 RBIs, and leads the team with 44 hits. Cal State Bakersfield transfer and infielder Kayli Shaw’s four home runs and slugging percentage of .476 lead the team.

The Gators close out the season against two of the top teams in the country in No. 3 Humboldt State and No. 24 Chico State.

“No matter who we play … (the) most important thing is not get caught up on (rankings) and know that we have the capability to beat anyone,” Allen said. “Every team is beatable. Just go out there and trust in what we’ve done and what we know to do. Go play the team, because no matter what, the ball dictates the game and not the other team.”