May 4—Dear MIAA: Your selection for softball Coach of the Year is a no-brainer.
Third-year Missouri Southern head coach Hallie Blackney has the Lions playing well beyond outside expectations — so much so that her MSSU team, picked 11th in the in the conference's preseason coaches poll, has finished third in the regular-season standings.
Not to mention MSSU is arguably the hottest team heading into the league's postseason tournament.
The Lions (28-13-1, 19-6-1 MIAA) — riding an eight-game win streak and winners of 20 of their last 24 outings — will not only be making their first appearance at the MIAA Tournament since 2017 later this week, but they'll also be hosting their first-round series against Missouri Western at Pat Lipira Softball Complex in Joplin.
Southern has also set a school record for most league victories since joining the MIAA in 1990.
Not bad for a team that sports one of the youngest rosters in the conference. Southern features just a pair of seniors as well as three juniors, eight sophomores and four freshmen.
With all of that considered, Blackney should be a shoo-in for the league's coach of the year award.
But don't just take my word for it.
"Coach Blackney is more than deserving," sophomore infielder Josie Tofpi said. "We've come such a long way, and people have noticed. I would say that most of it is because of her and how she pushes us on and off the field as people and student-athletes. We're a family, and I think that's really important. If you want to have a successful team, you have to have that camaraderie within the team. She plays a big part in that for all of us."
"She's probably one of the best coaches I've ever had," senior infielder Makaila Leonhart said. "I've never had a coach who cares about her players and everyone involved in the program as much as she does. She cares about our culture as a team, she cares about everyone outside of softball and she especially cares about our mental health. She goes above and beyond every day. It's just always comforting because most of us are a long way from home, and she's basically a second mom to all of us."
"We were picked to be one of the worst teams in the conference, and we thrived off of that," junior pitcher Abby Atkin said. "Coach B thrived off of that. She's a super gritty and resilient coach, and she told us when that poll came out that we love to be underestimated and we love to be the underdog. ...
"We don't care what other people think of us, but we're happy to prove them wrong each time we take the field. It's that type of mentality that she's instilled in the program."
From a statistical standpoint, Southern leads the league in triples (22) and sacrifice hits (29) while ranking third in fewest strikeouts (160) and on-base percentage (.383).
Tofpi has made her case as one of the top shortstops in the conference, ranking first in assists (95), third in hits (55), fourth in batting average (.410) and doubles (13), fifth in on-base percentage (.459) and eighth in runs scored (34).
Freshman utility player Yazmin Vargas leads the conference in stolen bases (29), and sophomore catcher Ashlynn Williams ranks second in triples (5).
Then in the pitcher's circle, Atkin and Kara Amos are tied for ninth in the league with mirroring ERAs of 2.74.
It's been quite the turnaround for the program under Blackney, who took the helm in 2019 as Southern was coming off five consecutive losing seasons. The Lions went 19-25 in her first year before going 11-9 last year in a season that was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Of course, Southern is now among the top teams in the conference thanks to the guidance of Blackney.
That's why this year's MIAA Coach of the Year award, again, is a no-brainer.
Jared Porter is a sports reporter at the Globe. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @JaredRyanPorter.