Courtesy App State Athletics/Jay Crain
When App State softball head coach Shelly Horner arrived in Boone in 2017, she joined an organization that had gone 14-34 and 2-22 in conference play just a season before. As the 2021 season commences, she leads an experienced team composed of seven returning seniors that has recorded a winning record in two straight seasons.
Hoerner understands the benefit that comes along with having an experienced group of leaders on her team.
“They have been the rock of this program,” Hoerner said. “It makes it simpler for myself and our staff, they know the expectation of what I (want) and how I want it done.”
With a solid incoming group of freshmen on this season’s roster, Hoerner appreciates the relationship that the newcomers and tenured leaders have developed.
“It’s been a good transition with those 11 freshmen,” Hoerner said. “I asked the team, ‘Who’s made an impact on you and who have you made an impact on?’ There are freshmen that say the seniors, but there are also seniors that say the freshmen have made an impact, so I feel we’re doing things the right way.”
The infield has an advantage in experience, as each position returns. Keri White, Caylie Kifer and Sidney Russell each return as fifth-year seniors among a solid group of underclassmen.
Fifth-year senior Gabby Buruato, who led last year’s team with a .339 batting average, returns to a dynamic outfield as a starter, alongside junior Mary Pierce Barnes and sophomore Emily Parrott. With the addition of freshmen Shelby Cornett, Abby Cunningham and Kayt Houston, Buruato is prepared to take on her role of being a mentor.
“I think a big thing on our team is that you have to know your role,” Buruato said. “I try to be there for anybody that doesn’t know what our program expects.”
Senior leader Baylee Morton and redshirt sophomore Taylor Thorp return as catchers, and versatile freshman Shelbi Tucker, who can also play second and third base, rounds out the group.
Battle-tested senior pitchers Sydney Holland and Kenzie Longanecker return as starters among a deep pitching group, including junior Taylor Nichols, sophomore Camryn Brazile, and freshmen Delani Buckner, Amala Clawson and Lindsey Manhart. The Mountaineers recognize the development of the position since Longanecker arrived in 2017.
“When we first came here our pitching was very weak,” senior infielder Sidney Russell said. “When Kenzie came, she showed the program what we were building, and as the years have gone by, our pitching has really improved.”
Despite falling to Charlotte 4-3 after eight innings in their Feb. 12 season opener, App State bounced back to pick up a 12-7 win Tuesday, now sitting at 1-2 on the season. The team is hopeful to continue their groundbreaking success of the past couple seasons, and to further evolve the program.
“We have a saying — ‘it’s on the team, it’s on us as a whole’ — and this specific senior class has really taken to that,” Hoerner said. “What they had when they got here, it’s not what it is now, and I feel that they’re very appreciative of that.”
The Mountaineers went 2-1 in a series at UNC Greensboro over the weekend to move to 3-3 on the young season. Next up for App State is a four-game weekend series at UNC Wilmington on Saturday and Sunday.