That was to be expected from a team that returned six starting position players and three pitchers from a team that tied for first in the Atlantic Sun Conference regular-season standings before finishing as the runner-up to Florida Gulf Coast in the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament.
But A-Sun play hasn’t been too kind to Kennesaw State this year, even though it has a winning record. The Owls (27-16, 11-10) are fighting just to get a spot in the six-team A-Sun tournament, sitting sixth in the standings with Mercer just one game behind.
Kennesaw State did sweep a three-game series against conference newcomer Northern Kentucky and won series against Lipscomb, Mercer and Florida Gulf Coast.
But it’s struggled for the most part since the final week of March. The Owls were swept by USC Upstate and have lost series against North Florida and Stetson.
“Things are choppy right now for us,” said Kennesaw State coach Scott Whitlock, who is retiring after this season to bring a 27-year run at the helm to an end. “We’re in the middle of the pack fighting for a playoff spot. It’s not because the kids aren’t playing hard and not trying. They’ve been injured, we’ve had bad luck and are in a prolonged hitting slump.”
The injuries have really taken a toll on the pitching staff as of late.
Junior Amanda Henderson, who is 15-4 with a 1.68 ERA, hasn’t been at full strength over the last week because of an illness, and now’s she’s battling a knee injury.
Senior Abbey Mixon has dealt with abdominal-related issues this season and isn’t at her best. Mixon is 10-9 with a 3.48 ERA and is coming off a tough outing Sunday in Kennesaw State’s 4-2 loss to Stetson, in which she didn’t make it out of the second inning.
“With a four-person pitching staff, when you have two who are struggling, it puts a tax on the operation,” Whitlock said. “They call it fast-pitch for a reason. When you have a team that scores three to five runs a game, it puts a different light on things. And it’s not because they’re not trying. Some of it are the injuries.”
Sharon Swanson is having a stellar senior season, leading the Owls with a .358 average, nine home runs and 28 RBIs. Sarah Sikes is also up there with a .336 average and 18 RBIs. But the rest of the team is under the .300 mark, and Whitlock said there hasn’t been a hitter that’s enjoyed success for any longer than four straight games.
Even with its returning talent, Kennesaw State is missing last year’s Atlantic Conference Player of the Year, Jessica Cross, who graduated after posting 200 strikeouts as a pitcher and hit .383 with 10 home runs and 41 RBIs.
Also, the Owls have 10 freshmen on their roster, with five getting substantial playing time. Former local standouts Kara Chambers (Allatoona) and Rachel Dennis (Pope) are among them.
But hope is not lost for Kennesaw State. The Owls host Jacksonville, which is fifth in the A-Sun standings, this weekend and will wrap up conference play a week later at East Tennessee State, which is still looking for its first conference win
“We’ve got to keep fighting and keep digging,” Whitlock said. “Believe it or not, if we can get healthy, I guarantee that, if we’re the No. 1 or the No. 6 seed, we can win this thing if everyone’s healthy. Last year, we didn’t get sick and didn’t get hurt.”