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Record-setting Tigers ready for GPAC tourney

This is the best softball team Dakota Wesleyan University’s Ed Kieff has coached in his tenure.

His team speaks for itself after its record-setting regular season. The Tigers are 20-16 overall and 11-9 in Great Plains Athletic Conference at the end of the regular season.

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DWU takes its best season in school history into the conference tournament, which starts Thursday in Hastings, Neb.

Twenty wins in a season is a school record for the Tigers, with the previous record being 17 wins, which was set by the 2007 and 2011 softball teams. The third-year coach said the number could have been higher if his team would have played its regular 50-game schedule. The Tigers played 36 games this season but had many games canceled because of the weather.

Wesleyan enters the GPAC tournament as the fifth seed and will meet No. 4 seed Hastings College (23-20, 12-8 GPAC) at 2 p.m. Thursday in Nebraska. The tournament is a double-elimination format.

Kieff said it will be difficult to knock off Hastings on its home turf, but his team is confident. The Tigers swept Hastings in a doubleheader earlier this month in Mitchell. DWU won the first game 2-1 and the second game 3-2.

“We have a good opportunity going into the tournament to do well,” Kieff said. “I think the consensus among coaches in the league is that this is a pretty wide open tournament and any team could come away victorious. It is definitely going to be a challenge to beat Hastings. We had two exciting games in Mitchell, but we think we can do well in this tournament.”

Kieff said the special thing about the 2014 Tigers is their ability to hit. This season, the Tigers have done a lot of it, recording a .281 batting average with 55 doubles.

“Because of our bats we are never out of a game,” Kieff said. “We can score a lot of runs in a hurry, and that makes this team unique and exciting. It is fun, but sometimes it can be a little bit of a heart stopper to get down early then come back with the bats.”

The Tiger offense is led by sophomore Lindy Snook, junior Danielle Klassen, sophomore Hailey Unger, junior Bailey Gummer and sophomore Vanessa Mendez. Snook, who was named GPAC player of the week Tuesday, is hitting a robust .438, which is second best in the GPAC. Snook also has three home runs and 25 RBIs. Unger leads the Tigers in home runs with five and is hitting .387 in 33 games. Klassen is the table setter for Wesleyan in the leadoff spot, hitting .313 with an on-base percentage of .377 and 24 stolen bases. In 27 games, Gummer has tallied 26 hits and a .313 batting average to go along with 19 RBIs. Mendez returned for the second season in a Tiger uniform to hit .302 with a .439 on-base percentage and five doubles.

“They are the ones who ignite the scoring explosion when it happens,” Kieff said. “It seems like they are able to turn it on when they want to. They are a group of players who have great ability and they are still young.”

Wesleyan also got a good year from senior pitcher Jill Dickson, who went 14-7 in 25 appearances and had a 2.60 earned run average. Dickson’s win total is tied for fourth best in the conference, while her ERA is the seventh best in the conference. Freshman Lorissa Loeppky also saw major time on the mound for Wesleyan. Loeppky appeared in 17 games, throwing 71.2 innings. Loeppky was 5-7 with a 4.79 ERA.

“Jill definitely has done everything that we have asked of her and we are very happy with her season and the level of maturity she brings to the team,” Kieff said. “Going into the tournament this week, we are going to mix up our pitching a little bit, and hopefully she will get the wins we need to get to the championship.”