2023 Softball Season Preview: Cooper

Ryan Cooper wasn’t sure he wanted to remain in coaching last spring.


An assistant with the Kansas Wesleyan baseball team, he had nothing against coach Bill Neale, the program or the university. He simply thought a change might be best for him and his family.


Then came an opportunity that piqued his interest: the vacant head softball coaching position at KWU.


“My family and I wanted to settle down,” Cooper said. “I’ve told many people I wouldn’t have taken this job without the people that are here. When I got the opportunity to start recruiting some of the players and with the coaching changes that were happening, I got a spark back in me that I still have a passion to coach.”


Cooper replaces interim coach Brian Guyett, who led KWU to a 22-22 record, 15-9 in the Kansas Conference last spring.


A lifelong baseball player and coach, Cooper’s softball debut comes Saturday afternoon when the Coyotes open the season with a doubleheader against Mid-America Christian in Oklahoma City.


“It is a little bit different but there are a lot of similarities,” he said. “For me the transition has been really easy. The two assistants that I have (Sam Huffstickler and Jazmine Esparza) have been great, I bounce ideas off of them all the time. They’ve lived it, played it, they’ve grown up with it so the transition has been pretty easy.


“I’ve brought a lot of ideas from the baseball side; they’ve continued to give ideas from their experience on the softball side and we’ve kind of twisted them together. We think we’re doing a lot of good stuff.”


Cooper’s pleased and impressed with the progress the team has made in the fall and early spring.


“They’ve been attentive, they’ve worked really hard, their willingness to learn has been there,” he said. “They’ve taken the culture and environment we’re trying to build and run with it. I have no complaints at all.”


That’s not to say there hasn’t been adjustments – athletes to the new coaching staff, coaches to athletes, coaches to each other.


Taking the reins of a women’s team has been the easy part for Cooper.


“I know multiple people that have transitioned from baseball to softball and not one of them said ‘I am so looking forward to go back to baseball’ and I completely understand now,” he said.


There are some rules that are notably different, though. For example there are no pick-off plays in softball like baseball. There’s also the designated player, a dynamic Cooper is still trying to process.


“There are so many benefits to help you win a game … it’s going to take some experience and time to fully understand it, to wrap my mind around it and strategically think of where this person goes and what they can do,” he said.


Cooper is counting a group of returners to set the pace, most notably Mia Hernandez (SO/Hanford, Calif.), the Kansas Conference’s Player of the Year in her freshman season. Hernandez, who plays catcher, hit .407 with 10 home runs and 30 runs batted in.


“She definitely was a really good player last year and if she stays on the right course, I think she’s going to do a lot of good stuff for us this year,” Cooper said.


Infielders Bailey Rivas (SR/La Puente, Calif.) (.222, 1 HR, 11 RBI) and Jocelyn Alcala (JR/Fullerton, Calif.) (.238, 2 HR, 14 RBI) and catcher Destiny Hackney (SO/Thornton, Colo.) (.313, 3 RBI) also return. Pitchers Jewell Henry (SR/Kingston, Okla.) (5-6, 4.16 ERA) and Natalie Zamora (SO/Houston, Texas) (2-7, 5.16) return in the circle.


KWU lost top pitcher Carmen Angulo (15-8, 3.09) but has depth this season. Henry and Zamora will start along with Miranda Fogal (JR/Monticello, Ill.), a junior college transfer. Transfers Halee Sweat (JR/Hilo, Hawaii) and Danika Utajara (JR/Lovington, N.M.) will work out of the bullpen.


“We have options,” Cooper said. “We don’t have one person where if she’s not very good then we’re not very good. We have five pitchers that can help us, three that will start and two that will relieve.


“Henry is going to pitch a lot for us. Fogal has found a few different pitches which is going to help her and Zamora’s confidence has been unreal this year.”


Transfer Josie Buhr (JR/Buffalo, N.D.) and freshman Kya Butler (FR/Newton, Iowa) run well and are outfield candidates.


Depth is not a concern entering the season.


“In terms of taking over a program typically you don’t have a lot of depth, you’re just trying to build and then hopefully in a few years you start gaining depth,” Cooper said. “This year we have a lot of depth. We have five or six people that would start on a few KCAC teams that are on our bench so I’m very pleased about that.”


Huffstickler and Esparza are the biggest additions, according to Cooper. Huffstickler, who works with the pitchers, was an assistant at Division II Central Missouri last season and head coach at St. Charles Community College (Mo.) for two seasons before that. Esparza tutors the infield and just completed a five-year playing career at Division I Central Florida.


“Sam has done a great job with the pitchers in terms of preparing them, teaching them, mentally getting them prepared, developing them,” he said. “From where we started to now is night and day difference. Coach Jazz has done a fantastic job with our infielders. I think our fielding percentage is going to be very high this year.”


Cooper’s eager to start the season.


“We can speculate we do this well and do that well but it doesn’t matter till we play somebody,” he said. “I think we’re in a really good spot and we can do some really good things this year.”