MIAMI — Rylee Bayless, the most decorated player in Northeastern Oklahoma A&M softball history is now at Oklahoma State.
But Northeastern A&M softball coach Eric Iverson isn’t stressing.
“You run into that every year,” said Iverson, entering his 22nd season. “We’ve been fortunate enough to be on a really nice run the last 10 years. The ’15 team finished as national runner-up and then you follow that up with another really good campaign. We had to figure out how to replace (2014 All-American) Raven Campos. In years past, we had to figure out how to replace a (2007 All-American) Candace Handley” and others.
“Replacing somebody like Rylee, you are not looking to replace, you are looking to be exactly what you are going to be: you are going to be different with a talented group of kids.”
The Lady Norse open the ’17 season at home Saturday with a 1 p.m. double-header against Iowa Western.
The Lady Norse were 54-8 a year ago, finishing fifth at the NJCAA national tournament.
Bayless led the country with 118 hits and a .621 batting average. She also was the pacesetter with 111 runs scored and a .703 on-base percentage.
Her 1.163 slugging percentage – bolstered by 26 doubles, four triples and 23 home runs – was also the highest in the nation.
“Sorry, but I don’t look at like we ever replace anyone,” Iverson said. “I don’t look at it as if you ‘reload,’ which is a term some people use. I look at it where we put a new level of expectation on a new set of kids and don’t change our program a whole lot on how we are doing it.
“It’s NEO softball. It’s not this person or that person or Coach Ivy. This is our program.”
The pitching staff includes sophomores Rylee Willmon, a 27-game winner and a first-team all-Region 2 pick, and Rachel Haberman and freshman Olivia Prather.
“We went on a really nice run with those two (Willmon and Haberman,” said Iverson, who also is high on Prather, who hails from Liberty, Missouri.
“Olivia is a very dynamic pitcher,” Iverson said. “She is different from the other two. She is very competitive and will throw a lot of innings for us. We expect her to be one of the next great ones in the line of our good pitchers here.”
Iverson said the offense is built with a great combination of speed, power and consistency.
“We think we have the ability to score runs,” he said. “It’s a team that is going to put pressure on defenses because of the speed and our ability to execute our offense.”
The Lady Norse will have six sophomores in the lineup, including five who were starters: Wilmon, Haberman, who will play first when not pitching; infielder Libby Morris of Grove, center fielder Shelby Prather and left fielder Peyton Tellez.
Catcher Hailey Seago is the only sophomore in the lineup that was a non-starter in 2016.
Among the freshmen expected to be in the lineup are shortstop Kristen Strong (expected to be the Lady Norse leadoff hitter), infielder Maci Willingham, outfielder Lena Sanders and infielder Sammy Gordon.
“I want smart players that are tough and have ability,” Iverson said. “Then you get the attitudes you need to go out and fight somebody and win.”