TOP STORIES Rhiannon Potkey - November 9, 2022
The usual goals all applied for Auburn during fall workouts. The Tigers wanted to get stronger, get more reps, build chemistry and learn more about new additions to the roster.
But likely the most important component has been getting healthy.
By the end of last season, which saw the Tigers finish 40-17 and reach the NCAA Regional, Auburn had multiple key players hobbled by injuries. Most of them had offseason surgeries and have spent the last few months rehabbing.
The contingent included pitcher Shelby Lowe, who tried to pitch through pain for the entire 2022 season.
“We don’t use injuries as excuses,” Auburn head coach Mickey Dean said. “I never talk about them in press conferences and media because I think when you talk about those things you kind of throw some doubt into the rest of the players’ ability to get the job done and I never want to do that. Every team has to deal with them in some way.”
Lowe, Makayla Packer, Jessie Blaine and Nelia Peralta are among the players who have spent the last few months giving their bodies time to rest and recover.
Some of the wear and tear dates back to the years of constant play in travel ball and high school.
“Over 70 percent of the injuries that we had here were pre-existing injuries before they even got here,” Dean said. “They were just not taken care of, and so we had to deal with those things. As coaches, it is our job to make sure that we try to get them as healthy as possible.”
It’s a disturbing trend that’s becoming more and more common across all sports as kids specialize at an earlier age.
“I try to tell recruits to play another sport. You need a good three months away from this,” Dean said. “You only have so many throws, and once you make that last throw, that is your last one. A body can only take so much pounding.”
The Auburn pitching staff was the most impacted by the injuries, requiring Maddie Penta to shoulder a big load. The Tigers made it a priority to increase their depth in the bullpen through the transfer portal and recruiting.
Sophomore pitcher/outfielder Icess Tresvik transferred to Auburn from North Carolina A&T. Tresvik is a middle of the lineup hitter and can throw 70 mph.
She batted a team-leading .323 with 10 home runs last season for the Aggies, earning Big South All-Freshman team and Big South All-Conference second team honors.
“She is learning how to pitch. She was also dealing with an injury, so we were getting her back on schedule with her arm,” Dean said. “She has really been looking good and hitting the ball extremely well and has great speed.”
Sophomore Annabelle Widra returned to her home state by transferring from Michigan. Widra is a lefty hitter with home run power and a right-handed pitcher who can also play middle infield.
The Alabama native batted .255 last season for the Wolverines and made 17 appearances in the circle (2-0, 1.73 ERA, 32.1 IP).
“We are adding some pitches to her repertoire, which is exciting for her and she was able to throw some of those in the fall games,” Dean said. “She is starting to build confidence in those pitches, because that is what pitching is all about, having confidence in those pitches.”
Junior KK McCrary sat out last season after transferring from Tennessee. McCrary can play second or third and the Tigers have worked her in the outfield as well.
“One of the reasons for that is she swings a pretty good bat and we want to make sure she gets as many at-bats in the lineup as possible,” Dean said.
Axe Milanowski, a freshman, is a corner infielder who batted .444 with 14 home runs, 22 doubles and 77 RBIs as a senior at Houston Academy in Alabama while recording 15 wins in the circle with 79 strikeouts. She set school records with career hits (233), triples (25), home runs (35), RBIs (206), runs scored (240) and pitching victories (72).
“She has shown a great deal of pop,” Dean said. “We didn’t know she was able to play third base, but she seems to have a knack for putting herself in position to make the play. She has been doing a nice job of that and has good hands at first base.”
Millie Roberts, a freshman from Kentucky, can play the corners and has catching experience. She batted .380 as a senior at Daviess County High.
“She has a lot of power,” Dean said. “We are trying to get her into rhythm and a good groove. She is a tough kid and polite kid. If we can get her on course, I think we will see a lot of power out of this kid.”
Freshman Skylar Elkins batted .375 with 20 RBIs as a senior at Locust Grove High in Georgia. She was a top-rated catching prospect nationally for her class.
“I can see why. She handles being behind the plate extremely well,” Dean said. “She is a very good receiver and has a quick release with a strong arm and she is really coming along on the hitting end of it.”
Freshman Emmah Rolfe is a power pitcher with good composure and the ability to adjust mid-game. The Alabama native went 28-8 with 346 strikeouts as a senior at Bob Jones High. She threw four no-hitter and two perfect games.
“She has that bulldog mentality. She is just coming at you,” Dean said. “She reminds me a little bit of Maddie Penta or Megan Good. She throws the ball hard and now she is going to learn how to pitch. We have really been working hard getting her to understand you don’t want every pitch to be the same speed and not every pitch is intended to throw by the batter. You want to use movement.”
The Tigers were intentional about creating a deeper staff to lessen the workload on Penta and Lowe. They want to give the junior aces as many innings off as possible to keep them fresh and healthy.
Tresvik, Widra and Rolfe give Auburn more options in the bullpen while also being able to contribute offensively or play other positions.
Penta pitched much more than anticipated last season because of the injuries to others on staff. The 6-foot-2 junior right-hander was 24-10 with a 1.76 ERA, 269 strikeouts and 53 walks in 195.0 innings pitched.
She’s been working in the fall to add another pitch.
“We got the fastball and riseball kind of working in her freshman year and we really worked hard last year on her changeup and it actually became her best pitch to be honest,” Dean said. “This year, we are trying to add the curve or the drop, whichever one she feels most comfortable with trying to add to her suitcase of pitches.”
Lowe wanted to build on her standout freshman season, but was hindered by her arm injury in 2022. She finished 9-3 with a 2.81 ERA, 129 strikeouts and 19 walks in 92.1 IP.
Lowe had offseason surgery and began throwing again on Oct. 12. The left-hander’s biggest priority is getting stronger after a taxing season.
“An athlete, especially one like Shelby, they want to compete and be there for their team,” Dean said. “From the physical injury to the mental weight – and I am not trying to put words in her mouth – of feeling like you can’t be counted on or not knowing what it’s going to be like day-to-day is tough for anyone.”
The Tigers made major gains in power numbers last season after making major gains in the weight room.
A season after ranking last in home runs (22) and slugging percentage (.338), Auburn improved to 86 home runs and a .557 slugging percentage last season. The slugging percentage was the second highest in a season in school history while the home run total finished third.
The Tigers return a large portion of their run production.
Sophomore Bri Ellis batted .302 with a team-leading 20 home runs and 49 RBIs. Sophomore Nelia Peralta batted .313 with 10 home runs, 15 doubles and 42 RBIs
Junior Makayla Packer hit .324 with nine home runs and 20 RBIs. Senior Carlee McCondichie hit a team-leading .338 with six doubles and 21 RBIs.
Junior Sydney Cox batted .310 with 10 doubles and 69 RBIs, sophomore Jesse Blaine hit .285 with nine home runs and 37 RBIs and senior Lindsey Garcia hit .285 with eight home runs, eight doubles and 32 RBIs.
Junior Denver Bryant hit .371 with six home runs, four doubles and 20 RBIs in 29 games.
Auburn is still searching for someone to bat lead off, with two or three players in the mix.
“I feel good about where we are offensively and who we have now,” Dean said. “It is our job to kind of mesh that lineup to where we can get the best production out of it. We have a good mix of speed and power, with righty, lefty throughout the lineup.”
Given some of their depth, the Auburn coaching staff has made it a point to ensure players understand where they fit in the lineup. They meet for 30 minutes every day in a classroom to have those discussions.
“I think that is more important now than ever since I’ve been coaching,” Dean said. “Kids should have a good sense of where their role is by the end of fall so they can mentally get their head around that and know where they stand. That was honestly something I never even thought about talking about in the past.”
The Tigers have options at catcher. Four players – Aspyn Godwin, Aubrie Lisenby, Elkins and Blaine – are in the mix for playing time.
“That is probably the deepest we’ve ever been on this team with catching,” Dean said. “It is fun to watch them compete and we are pretty excited about that position because we haven’t performed great at that position the last three years. But I really think this can be an outstanding year for our catching.”
To help create chemistry with the pitching staff, Auburn has tweaked workouts. The Tigers have two catchers remain with the team for normal practices and two come at other times to work with the pitchers in separate individual bullpen sessions.
“That seems to be helping a great deal, especially when it comes to mishandled pitches and passed balls,” Dean said. “That is an area where we really needed to improve and it seems to be working so far.”
The infield lineup is starting to take form.
Ellis is at first base. Peralta is at shortstop, with Rose Roach and Widra also getting reps. McCondichie and Bryant are options at second base.
“Third base is the one position that is really open,” Dean said. “I think we are going to look at Axe Milanowski there and Denver Bryant there and Millie Roberts. But Sydney Cox is also working at third and second and in the outfield.”
The outfield has a rotation of players, including Cox, Abbey Smith, Tresvik, Garcia and Kenadie Cooper.
“What I really like about this team is the versatility and depth,” Dean said.
The Tigers have placed more of an emphasis on mental health during the fall. They are not just sticking to softball either. They want to help players deal with academics and personal relationships.
“This game can beat you down and social media can beat you down. You have to really control that,” Dean said. “We get these kids today and they really get an overload of information. It is so much and we want to make sure they are mentally clear and clean. You can’t be perfect at it, but at least we can try.”