The Skyhawks want to start a turnaround, and they want to start it this weekend.
Not just for themselves but also for one of their biggest fans. And a grieving member of their softball family.
Fort Lewis College softball enters this weekend’s series with No. 12 Colorado School of Mines with heavy hearts. Bruce Zeiter, father of head coach Kira Zeiter, died in a car accident near Flagstaff late Tuesday night.
“He was the one always telling me, ‘Go get a home run for me today, Chelsea; go play hard for me today,’” third baseman Chelsea Rodriguez said. “And that’s what I plan on doing this weekend for him.”
FLC will host Colorado Mines in a pair of Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference doubleheaders at noon and 2 p.m. today and 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturday at Aspen Field.
Taking the reins for Zeiter this weekend will be assistant coach Erin Holloway. She said that once the Skyhawks were able to compose themselves, they actually had a strong day of practice Wednesday and appeared to be motivated by the task at hand.
“After a little while – we gave them time to soak it in and be there for each other – we kind of pulled it together,” Holloway said. “And once we started practice and physically doing something, everyone gave 100 percent. I feel like it was kind of like a new team. They had that fire under them.”
That task is no easy one. The Skyhawks, coming off an NCAA Tournament run last year, enter the weekend at 6-15 and losers of seven of their last eight games, and they’ll face the RMAC’s top team in Mines, who enters 22-3-1 and 13-1 in league play.
The Orediggers boast a dangerous combination of an offense that’s scored 179 runs – second best in the RMAC – and one of the nation’s best arms in Kelly Unkrich.
Unkrich is sixth nationally in earned-run average, allowing just 0.88 runs per seven innings and has accrued 108 strikeouts, 19th-best nationally. She’s also 21st in the nation in hits allowed per game at 4.61 and has 14 wins.
Rodriguez, one of the league’s top offensive threats with a .448 batting average, said that despite Unkrich’s gaudy numbers, the Skyhawks are looking forward to the challenge.
“We want to take it to Mines. We’ve been struggling this season, but I personally, I’m really looking forward to playing against Kelly Unkrich,” Rodriguez said. “She’s proven herself to be a great pitcher in the RMAC, and I just want to see what she’s got and play my best game against her.”
FLC, meanwhile, is 10th in the RMAC with 103 runs scored despite boasting the league’s fourth-best batting average at .312 and sixth-best on-base percentage at .386.
Translation? The Skyhawks need better hitting in key situations, including with runners in scoring position. They need the kind of big hits that turn one- or two-run losses into one- or two-run victories.
“We’ve had flashes of brilliance where we’ve all played together and everyone’s been producing just like we did last year,” Rodriguez said. “And then there’s times when we’re not getting those key hits when we need them.”
FLC also hasn’t been able to replicate the power surge from last year, when the Skyhawks consistently were ranked near the top nationally in home runs per game. This year, the Skyhawks have mustered just 11 long balls in 21 games.
It’s been a struggle in the circle for the Skyhawks, as well. FLC has a team ERA of 7.98 and has allowed 80 walks against 69 strikeouts.
Holloway, a former pitcher herself at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, said that fixing one problem might help solve both of FLC’s woes.
“Honestly, I think a lot that would help would be getting the offense going in crucial situations and getting those runs across,” she said. “I mean, I was a pitcher when I played, and the more we scored, it was so much easier to perform in the circle.”
After that, it might just be a matter of consistency. FLC needs to string together a handful of days where everything works in unison – offense, defense, pitching – and do so quickly if the season is to take a spike in the opposite direction.
But the Skyhawks can’t get it all back at once. They simply have to start with Colorado Mines, where winning a few for a fan and a grieving coach could help them heal what ails them – first off the field, then on.
“We plan on playing really hard for him this weekend,” Rodriguez said.