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BURNSVILLE — The Southwest Minnesota State University softball team was picked seventh in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference preseason coaching poll, voted on by the league’s 16 coaches. The announcement came Wednesday morning from the NSIC office.

SMSU senior pitcher Shelby Bloemendaal and second-year shortstop Abby Russell were both named “Players to Watch” in the conference this season. Bloemendaal led the way in the circle for the Mustangs last season shooting a best 127 2/3 innings and 1.50 WHIP, finishing with a 10-10 record with a 4.44 ERA. Russell was in the team’s top three in nearly every statistical category, batting .324, scoring 30 runs, collecting 55 hits, 14 doubles, three triples and a pair of home runs with an OPS of .854, all while striking out just 13 times in 188 plate appearances.

The 2023 Mustangs softball returns nine letter winners and adds five new faces to a team attempting to build a 2022 team that finished 21-31 overall and 12-14 in NSIC action, winning one NSIC tournament game by the fourth tournament in a row.

This year’s team sees a greater balance of seniors and juniors, with three seniors and four juniors intermingled with four sophomores, one redshirt freshman, and three freshmen.

The SMSU offense returns four everyday starters, including Russell and young Jillian Noel. Noel hit .342 with six home runs and 35 RBI, while adding 23 runs, eight doubles and a .903 OPS, hitting just 12 times in 166 plate appearances.

Junior catcher Molly Bull returns after a successful season, hitting .338 in conference play and leading the NSIC with seven runners caught stealing in NSIC action. He has enabled a theft success rate of NSIC-low 65.0.

Makenna Waldow also returns after hitting .212, ranked in the top 25 in the nation in sacrifice bunts and helped shoot seven double plays while playing second base.

Bloemendaal and sophomore Karlie Miller will lead the Mustangs into the circle, bringing experience and previous successes. Miller returned after appearing in 23 games last season, including 22 starts, striking out 80 batters in 124 1/3 innings of work and pitching a pair of two-hit shutouts in conference play.

The Mustangs are scheduled to open their 50-game regular season Feb. 24 in Topeka, Kan., for the Washburn Invtational. SMSU will begin its 30-game NSIC season in Sioux Falls on March 28 and have its first home doubleheader on April 1 against Upper Iowa.

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