By KEVIN HARRIS
NEW ALBANY —
Last summer, former Floyd Central High School softball coach Joe Witten wanted to take a shot at coaching at the collegiate level as he was hired as the IU Southeast softball coach.
So far this season, Witten has taken full advantage of that opportunity.
Under Witten’s guidance, the Grenadiers have a 16-4 record and a 6-0 mark in the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference as they enter today’s doubleheader at Alice Lloyd.
On Thursday, IU Southeast swept a doubleheader against St. Catharine (Ky.) at home to set a new program record for consecutive victories at 14 games.
Witten has enjoyed his time as the Grenadiers’ coach thus far.
“I’ve enjoyed it because it’s absorbed my time. I love the sport and I love interacting with highly-skilled and trained student-athletes,” Witten said. “They just bring a lot to the table because they’re willing to learn. At this level, they’re here for a common goal. They want to be here and they want to excel both academically and athletically.”
Witten is doing a good job of picking up where former IU Southeast coach Todd Buckingham left off. Buckingham, the first fast-pitch softball coach in Grenadier history, compiled a 186-111 record in his seven years at IU Southeast. During his tenure, Buckingham led the Grenadiers to five KIAC regular-season championships, five KIAC Tournament titles and three NAIA national tournament appearances.
“I didn’t know exactly what to expect, except that we were going to work extremely hard in the offseason and push ourselves beyond our limits to try to eliminate either bad habits and create new ones or create mental toughness in people,” Witten said. “We’ve been the victims of some cold-weather games and some girls with sore arms to start the season. But we’ve been allowed enough rest and recovery and learned to know to play the right people in certain situations. It’s paid off the past few games.”
One Grenadier who has liked playing for Witten in the 2013 season is a player who his Highlander teams had several tough Hoosier Hills Conference and sectional battles with a few years ago in Summer Sanders. The sophomore shortstop played her high school softball at Jennings County.
“I love it. He has the same style as my high school coach. It’s just a lot of fun. We’re always learning and getting better,” Sanders said. “I’ve also enjoyed the tempo [of Witten’s past Floyd Central teams]. Playing against them was always intimidating. They sprinted onto the field and beat you before you got off the field, and that was always intimidating going against that. So I take pride in it now because I know it intimidates the other team.
“I think he’s brought his success [at Floyd Central] here.”
Witten has somebody on this year’s IU Southeast roster that knows a lot about his coaching style. That player is Grenadier standout Jordan Batliner, who starred for Witten at Floyd Central earlier this decade.
Batliner has liked being reunited with her high school coach.
“I’ve enjoyed it a lot because I guess I know a lot of things that he likes to throw out there,” the sophomore first baseman and pitcher said. “I’m ahead of all the stuff he wants done and how he wants it to be done. It makes things more comfortable than having a brand new coach.”
Batliner says she was surprised when she found out Witten was going to be her coach this summer.
“I had no idea he even applied for it until he showed up for the [job] interview,” Batliner said. “I knew he always dreamed of coaching college. I was really surprised.”
Batliner and IU Southeast junior Bethany Sullivan have been two of the biggest reasons the Grenadiers have gotten off to a great start to the 2013 campaign.
Batliner has a .438 batting average with team-highs in home runs (three) and RBIs (18). She also leads the team in total bases (34) and slugging percentage (.708). The KIAC has taken notice of Batliner’s production this season as she was named KIAC Player of the Week in back-to-back weeks earlier this month.
“She’s always been a special player,” Witten said. “We’ve felt like she could play at any possible level athletically. Having her here has been a joy for me because I’ve been able to see her grow from an 11-year-old Little Leaguer to an adult who can hit the ball over the fence regularly. She’s just a great kid and a great person.
“I treat her just like anybody else. I push everybody the same because we have a common goal. But she’s been a blessing.”
Sullivan has pretty much been unstoppable on the mound. The right-hander has a 7-0 record with an impressive 0.70 earned-run average, which ranks eighth in the NAIA. In 40 innings of work, Sullivan has struck out 26 batters and walked only eight. The Terre Haute North graduate has thrown five complete games and three shutouts.
Sullivan has been named KIAC Pitcher of the Week in two consecutive weeks on March 11 and 18.
Witten had prior knowledge of Sullivan as she shut out the Highlanders when he was the Floyd Central coach a few years ago.
“She was one of the best pitchers that I’ve seen in high school,” Witten said. “I was just so impressed with her poise and her ability back then.
“I wouldn’t trade her for anybody in the league — she’s that special. She’s very, very intelligent on and off the field.”
Sullivan and Batliner are not the only players who have made a difference for IU Southeast this season.
Senior third baseman Katie Jelinek and freshman shortstop Brookelyn Visker each have a .393 batting average and 17 RBIs in 2013. Visker earned KIAC Player of the Week honors last Monday. Teammate Shauna Gramig is batting .366 with 15 RBIs this year.
“I’ve been so impressed with all of them at some point or another,” Witten said about his entire team. “It’s so funny because it was so parallel to our teams at Floyd Central. We never had one girl or two girls [who produced] — it was always a collective group. I think it’s because of how we put them in position to be successful. But also we put them positions where we want them to fail so we can see how they react to failure. By doing that early in the year and doing it in practice, it allows them to grow and not just be one-dimensional.”
Witten has already noticed some differences between the college level and the high school level.
“The main difference is the physical ability. The girls can physically take more and they demand more,” Witten said. “Mentally, they all have such a high IQ, although they still have a lot of things they can improve on and learn. I think that’s the part that’s been the most fun or challenging because I’ve been trying to challenge them mentally as well.”
Even though the Grenadiers have a new coach, the goals remain the same within the program. IU Southeast still has its sights set on winning the KIAC regular-season and tournament titles and earning a berth in the NAIA national tournament.
“Definitely, we’ve got to take our conference games one at a time because I know a bunch of our conference teams have new coaches and new players,” Sanders said. “We’ll see how that goes and then we’ll have to make adjustments for the conference tournament.”
Witten is making a concerted effort in keeping the Grenadiers on the right track in attaining those goals. “They need to stay healthy. That’s the main thing. We don’t have a team as deep player-wise as in previous years,” Witten said. “We’ve got to continue to push each person in their position. We are two or three girls deep at each position, so when they challenge each other in practice, it will improve their ability.
“They know that I play a lot of players. I’ve always done that. Every girl has started, every girl has gotten multiple at-bats, every girl has gotten a hit and every girl has made an error. It’s one of those things where you have to be ready when you are called upon and we expect them to fire.”