By Jim Rueda
Free Press Sports Editor
In another time and place, the career of Minnesota State’s starting shortstop Abby Sonner might already be over.
The senior on the softball team, who is off to the fastest start of her four-year career, is also an elementary education major. As such, she needs practical experience before she can get her degree.
Thanks to technology, she’s getting it. Every Tuesday and Thursday, in the middle of the practice, Sonner excuses herself for about 30 minutes.
She walks down to head coach Lori Meyer’s office, whips out her iPad, and begins an after-school, one-on-one tutoring session with a student from Sibley East who needs help with reading. When the half-hour session is over, Sonner returns to practice.
“It’s called i-tutoring and it’s pretty cool,” said Sonner, of the technological advancements that have enabled her to fulfill some of her degree requirements while still playing on the softball team. “If I had to drive to Sibley East twice a week I doubt I could do both.”
Because of Minnesota State’s commitment to technology and coach Meyer’s willingness to work around the academic schedules of her players whenever possible, Sonner is able to get some needed credits while still playing on the softball team. And without her, the Mavericks might be in trouble.
After 20 games, the Johnston, Iowa, native is second on the team in batting with a .400 average behind Lindsay Erickson (.518). She leads the club with 10 doubles, is second in slugging percentage (.554) and has provided solid defense in the middle of the infield.
“She’s been a big plus for us because she is notoriously slow starter at the plate,” Meyer said. “She carried us in Arizona and she did the same thing at the Rebel Spring games in Florida last week.
“We’ve batted her everywhere from second, third, fourth and fifth in the lineup. She’s just really swinging the bat well right now.”
Sonner’s biggest challenge at the moment is staying healthy. Last fall she started experiencing back pain and it was eventually discovered she had a couple of bulging discs. It’s been difficult to deal with since she’s never had any significant injuries before.
“I have to do a lot of stretching,” she said. “Before games, between innings, after games, all the time. The pain doesn’t bother me when I’m batting, it’s mostly when I have to bend over to field ground balls.”
Sonner’s fast start has enabled the Mavericks to get off to a strong beginning as well. MSU, the preseason pick to win the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference title, is 15-5 on the season.
The Mavericks will open their NSIC schedule Tuesday with a 10 a.m. doubleheader at the Savage Sports Dome. After 20-plus games, Meyer said the everyday lineup seems to be pretty well set.
Sonner and transfer student Samantha Holien from North Dakota State make up the double-play combination. Senior Lauryn Morris is the starting center fielder and junior Lindsay Erickson shares the catching duties with junior Kelly Wood.
Brittani Robinson had originally won the third-base job but suffered what might be a season-ending injury a few weeks ago. That has forced Meyer to do some shuffling. Instead of Erickson and Wood alternating at first base when they’re not catching, they are now doing so at third base.
That has opened the door for freshman Tatum Klein to play first. Junior Anna Cole is in right field and the left-field spot is handled by Emily Bransky, Laura Mulligan, Avery Carter or Eryn Edgerton, depending on who is wielding the hottest bat.
“We’ve learned that we have some depth in the outfield,” Meyer said. “We just need to get some offensive punch from those spots. That’s why whoever is hitting the best is probably going to get the most playing time.”
That leaves pitching. With four-year starter Kendra Huettl graduated, Meyer needed to find another thrower to complement veteran Courtney McKelvogue. McKelvogue is the entrenched No. 1 with an 8-3 record, a 1.96 earned-run average and 56 strikeouts in 64 1/3 innings.
Meyer thought she might have found that second pitcher in freshman Coley Ries from Mankato East, but the rookie developed forearm problems on the Florida trip and has been shut down indefinitely.
That makes Brittany Lauterbach and Jenna Peterson the top challengers for the No. 2 spot behind McKelvogue. The temptation is there to throw McKelvogue more often, but Meyer said that’s not a realistic long-term solution.
“Sure, you’d like to use her enough to keep you in the hunt but, if you use her too much, she won’t have any gas left at the end of the season when you need her the most,” Meyer said. “Brittany and Jenna are just going to have to step up and do the job for us.”
Peterson is a newcomer to the team. She played four years of hockey at MSU and decided to come out as a senior for softball. She was an excellent high school pitcher at Hopkins and is hoping she’ll be able to contribute.
“With Coley sidelined we’re going to need her,” Meyer said. “It’s like any fastpitch team, you usually go as far as your pitching takes you.”