Pieces to the puzzle

Six of the pieces that propelled the Minot State softball team to a superb regular season and historic postseason finish in 2013 graduated, leaving MSU coach Bill Triplett with holes to fill. He believes he has the right pieces to return to the postseason.

The catch? Six freshmen haven’t played a lick of college softball yet.

The Beavers kick off their 2014 campaign this weekend at the Desert Stinger Tournament in Las Vegas. Triplett will rely heavily on his six first-year players, unlike last year, when his experienced senior class helped the Beavers go 4-1 at the event and win 19 of their first 20 games.

“We certainly aren’t going down there with low expectations by any means, but it’s just a whole different team,” he said. “We’re unproven and we’re young.”

MSU plays Azusa Pacific (Calif.) and Western Oregon on Friday before taking on Hawaii-Hilo and Central Washington on Saturday. The Beavers’ face the defending national champion, top-ranked Central Oklahoma, on Sunday. The Bronchos defeated MSU 2-0 in the NCAA Division II Central Region tournament in May.

Between Sunday’s contest with Central Oklahoma and future showdowns against No. 2 Kutztown University (Ohio) and Molloy College (N.Y.), which is receiving votes in the national poll, the Beavers have a few daunting tests before conference play begins March 25. A stiff schedule won’t pad their win total, but Triplett expects to get more out of losses to good opponents than they would winning against “cupcakes.”

“I don’t like playing those cupcake games,” he said. “It doesn’t do any good to go win a whole bunch of games early against teams that aren’t very good. I’m glad we have a tough schedule. It might not add up to 30, 40 wins like it has, but I think by the end of the year, this team’s gonna be really good.”

Last year, the Beavers caught fire in Vegas and never really cooled off. They finished 41-11, placed second in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference tournament and won their first NCAA tournament game in program history in the program’s inaugural year as a full-fledged NCAA Division II member.

Though young this season, Triplett warns not to sleep on his team early on.

Unsurprisingly, senior left fielder/pitcher Jen Dixon returns as the NSIC’s preseason player of the year. She batted .447 with 50 RBIs, 50 runs and 35 extra-base hits, including 12 homers, last season en route to collecting NSIC player of the year and first-team all-America honors.

Junior shortstop Ali Cygan, who is coming off a hamstring injury, was also named one of the conference’s “players to watch.” She posted a .280 batting average with 42 runs scored in 2013.

“Don’t get me wrong, the nucleus we have back in Dixon, (Melissa) Bell, (Katie) Backes and (Stacy) Fournier, that’s a great nucleus,” Triplett said.

Dixon projects to rack up more starts in the circle than her five last year.

The departure of graduated pitchers Mandy Greenberg and Tiffany Friesen opens up two spots in the Beavers’ rotation. Triplett expects freshman Alyssa Cornejo and junior Mindy Lorimor, a transfer from South Dakota State, to fill those openings.

Greenberg, who recorded a 25-5 mark and 258 strikeouts in her final season, will be a handful to replace. The defense behind pitch-to-contact hurlers Dixon, Cornejo and Lorimor may be the key.

“We got strong girls at every position,” Cygan said. “I think we’ll be able to field behind our pitchers very well.

“We got pitchers that are gonna take ’em out, too.”

Triplett particularly recruited to replace last year’s talented seniors, he said. Freshman Jordan Grant was brought in to take over for Maribel Casilla, while Lorimor figures to step in for his ace, Greenberg. Each has a distinctive role to fill.

“It’s kind of rolled over,” he said. “Last year’s senior class was a big recruiting class just like this year’s freshman class is. That senior class that graduated last year, I don’t know how many wins they put on the board, but I would guess that it was 130 wins in four years (actually 139). This freshman class has a chance to be a very special class, also.”

With third baseman Fournier (broken foot) and first baseman Taylor Studler (concussion) injured, the reliance on youngsters will be greater than ever. So far, Dixon likes what she sees from her new counterparts.

“They’re showing a lot of promise in practice from what I’ve seen,” Dixon said. “We have a lot of options offensively and defensively, as well. We have a lot of girls that can play a lot of positions and are really versatile.”

The Beavers, who were selected fifth in the NSIC’s preseason poll, have 25 games before they begin conference play. The first five are in sight. A hot start like 2013 may be unlikely, but MSU envisions a similar finish.

“It’s tough to come back from a great season last year, but I think we’ll be able to do the same thing this year,” Cygan said. “It was nice getting ranked fifth right in the preseason. We’ll try to shoot for even higher than that.”

Ryan Holmgren covers Minot State athletics and general assignments. Follow him on Twitter @ryanholmgren.