Chloee Mason throws a pitch during practice.

The array of banners sprawled along the outfield fence at the Blinn College softball stadium aren't just a celebration of past postseason achievements.

For this season's Buccaneers squad, they're also an invitation.

"We want a banner of our own this year on that fence," sophomore Skylar Shanahan said. 

"Our focus is a blue banner," added sophomore Chloee Mason. "We need to stay locked in on that and make that happen."

Blinn is setting the bar high one season after finishing below .500 overall but qualifying for the Region XIV tournament thanks to a winning record in conference play.

The Bucs have reloaded with a talented freshman class as well as a bolstered pitching staff that has NJCAA Hall of Fame head coach Rick Church believing his revamped squad has the tools for the trade.

"This team is coming together," Church said. "It's hard to get 18, 19, or 20 people to come together and be a unit, but that's what I've admired so much about this team right now; they've already come together as a team and that's how they're going to do the things they want to do."

During the offseason, Church, who is entering his 23rd season at the helm of the Bucs, addressed his team's biggest Achilles heel from 2022: pitching. Blinn battled with just three pitchers in 2022, with Mason taking on the bulk of the responsibility with more than 160 innings pitched. This spring, the Bucs will have the luxury of six pitchers.

"The depth is huge for us," said Mason. "We aren't going to be in trouble if a pitcher doesn't have her best stuff one game because we'll have options that can step in and help the team. We have pitchers who have great velocity and others with great off-speed pitches, so it's going to bring an element to the games that we didn't always have last season."

Joining Mason in the circle this spring will be Shanahan, sophomore Kailey Eldridge, freshman Peyton Welker, and fellow first-years Camdyn Shugart and Sydnie Cline, who will also serve in a utility role.

With the pitching staff taking shape, Church is hoping a core of reliable sophomore bats mixed with an influx of first-year hitters will provide enough pop to support his hurlers.

Sophomores Emily Kristynik, (catcher/infield), Caitlyn Stevens (catcher/infield), Kenley Strange (infield), Madeline Stephenson (second base), Michyla Sanez (utility), and Shanahan (pitcher/utility), bring veteran leadership to the lineup, while Church said freshman outfielder Erynne Castillo's fall performance in the leadoff spot has cemented her role as the team's offensive spark.

Freshman outfielders Shae FontenotRipley WelkerHaley Rust, and Alayna Calvillo could also find their way into the lineup, giving the Bucs a young-but-talented outfield.

In the infield, freshmen Madyson HenleyMadison DorrowAlyssa Boozy, and Ripley Welker will battle for innings with their sophomore counterparts.

"Everyone is competing right now, and we have some freshmen who are going to push our sophomores," Church said. "The girls are putting in the work and they're battling every day to make an impact. We'll use the early part of the season to see where we need to put different players and how we're going to piece together our lineup."

Blinn opens its season in the 2023 Island Invitational, beginning with a tilt against Howard College at 10 a.m. on Friday in Galveston, Texas. Following the two-day, four-game tournament, the Bucs return to Brenham for their home opener against Tyler Junior College — a double-header beginning at 1 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 3.

Blinn kicks off region play with a road twin bill at Coastal Bend College on Thursday, March 16, beginning what Church said will be another gauntlet of a conference slate.

"Our region is one of the strongest regions in the country … that's why we get two automatic bids for the national tournament," Church stated. "San Jacinto-South will be good again; Angelina College will be tough. In the South Zone of our region, it's gotten to where even the bottom-level teams are tough. You can't chalk anything up to an easy win anymore. In this conference, any team can beat you. Region XIV is going to be strong across the board, and you can't take anyone for granted — that's what I'll say."

Church went on to say he admires his team's hunger for its own place in program history, adding that he looks forward to seeing how his team answers the call of a challenging campaign.

"In the fall, when you're facing four-year schools, your goal is to compete and play well," Church said. "Now we're in the spring, I'm anxious and excited to see how we play when the games are for keeps. Our response to adversity and our ability to go after people is going to dictate our season." 

Story by Joe Alberico, Blinn College Sports Information

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