Every move up the rankings this spring is a new high-water mark for University of Jamestown softball.
The Jimmies soared to No. 16 in the latest NAIA coaches' top 25 poll released Tuesday, March 27. Up from 21st, Jamestown has a chance to solidify its new ranking Friday with three games against rival Valley City State University.
All three contests will be played at the Presentation College Dome in Aberdeen starting at 11 a.m. The teams were originally scheduled to play back-to-back doubleheaders in Valley City this Friday and Saturday, but field conditions are not quite yet spring-like.
The Jimmies and the Vikings currently sit 1-2, respectively, in the North Star Athletic Association standings and split a pair of non-conference games in Aberdeen last month.
"They're going to come at us, and that just means we'll have to do the same back to them," said Jimme head softball coach Kevin Gall, who notched his 500th career victory this season. "We're not necessarily playing against Valley City State, we're playing against that softball. If we're able to catch it and hit it better than they do we'll probably have a better outcome."
The Jimmies (24-4, 7-1 NSAA) have been hitting and catching the ball at a very high level. Jamestown has won 24 of 28 games by boasting the fourth-best batting average in the NAIA (.376) and the country's eighth-best fielding percentage (.972).
Only 11 more teams have pushed more runners across the plate than the Jimmies' 193, but solid defense up the middle, led by senior Tifani Schorzman at catcher, sophomore Mikayla Frost at shortstop, freshman Morgan Geiszler at second and freshman Morgan Flann in center, is what has really impressed the head coach.
Schorzman and Flann have yet to record an error.
"That's something we were shooting for a little lower goal," Gall joked. "Sometimes when you're striking people out you don't have to play too much defense, but the chances we get we're making 97 percent of those plays."
Gall alluded to what has also been impressive to this point for the club: pitching.
All-conference senior starter Brittany Rheault lost star running mate Hanna Dunnigan to graduation this offseason. Dunnigan, from Regina, Saskatchewan, left the program as the Jimmies' all-time leader in wins (57) and strikeouts (607), and posted two of the program's nine no-hitters.
But sophomore transfer Kat Miska has so far filled in quite nicely. Miska struck out 12 hitters in Jamestown's 5-2 win this past Sunday at Bellevue University, helping the Jimmies sweep four games from the Bruins. Miska and freshman pitcher Jasmine Pipella have both posted 6-1 records, while Rheault is 8-2.
Miska, a native of Pequot Lakes, Minn., leads the staff with an ERA of 1.66 and 48 strikeouts in 46 1/3 innings.
"We're hoping that she keeps getting better," Gall said of Miska, who transferred to Jamestown from St. Cloud State University. "She's got a lot of potential. I think she's finding out she really likes doing this."
Frost and senior slugger Emma Keller-both first team NSAA all-conference returners, along with Rheault-are doing damage with the bats. Each have belted 45 hits, which ranks 14th in the NAIA, while Keller has driven in an eighth-best 35 runs.
Keller, known to make highlight-reel plays in left field as well, also leads the team in homers (4), triples (4) and doubles (9).
"You've got to ask her if she's having fun," Gall said of Keller. "She doesn't express it, but she's improved every year and when she's at her best she's putting the bat on the ball and running down the line like her hair's on fire, and that's what we like to see."
The Jimmies got a taste of the NAIA national tournament last season by winning the NSAA conference tournament title. Jamestown went 0-2 at the national tournament's opening round in Sioux City, Iowa, but the feat itself was a milestone, marking the Jimmies' first appearance at nationals since 1992.
It doesn't appear Jamestown softball wants to wait quite that long for a return trip.
"I think we've got a chance to do some cool things, but we've got to keep working hard, keep a good attitude and love each other," Gall said. "I just try to give them stuff to work on and stay out of their way."