(Photo MSUB Athletics)

(MSUB Athletics release)

BILLINGS – The Montana State University Billings softball team will get back on the diamond Friday as they open the 2018 season at the Desert Stinger in Las Vegas, Nev. The Yellowjackets will play five tournament games starting with the University of Mary at 11:30 a.m. followed by the Academy of Art at 2 p.m. Friday.

On Saturday, the ‘Jackets will play another doubleheader against Azusa Pacific (11:30 a.m.) and Colorado Christian University (2 p.m.). The weekend will culminate with an 11:30 a.m. game against Cal State, Dominguez Hills on Sunday.

DESERT STINGER: Montana State University Billings will host its ninth annual Desert Stinger from Feb. 2-4, 2018 in Las Vegas. The Yellowjackets will play five games against Division II opponents at Majestic Park and play host to 70 softball games over three days. Three teams in the NFCA Preseason top-25 (No. 5 Humboldt State, No. 15 Cal State Monterey Bay and No. 21 Chico State) will be at the Stinger as some of the best DII programs travel to Vegas to join MSUB. For tickets and more information visit the Desert Stinger page on MSUBSports.com. All games will have live stats with MSUB games being streamed as well. You can find links for all the games via the Desert Stinger Stretch Internet Portal.

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The ‘Jackets will see the field for the first time in months when they get down to Nevada after doing most of their preseason work indoors in snow-covered Billings.

“At the Stinger, I just want us to mesh as a group,” second-year head coach Jessica Rayman said. “It is a unique opportunity for us to take a long bus trip early in the season and play some great competition. We get to spend a lot of time together and I just want them to lay it all out there on the field and continue to grow as a team.”

MSUB went 1-4 in five games during last season’s Desert Stinger. They tallied 15 runs in a win over Mary and scored 12 in a high-scoring battle (19-12) with Sonoma State. The ‘Jackets’ Kelsey Devlin was named to the all-tournament team finishing the weekend with three home runs, seven RBI and a .315 batting average.

Humboldt State will look to repeat as tournament champions after going 5-0 last season and having Tiffany Hollingsworth named tournament MVP. The ‘Jacks outscored opponents 55-10 in five games at the Stinger last year.

ROSTER AT A GLANCE: Rayman will lead a group that features 10 returners from last season’s team including standout seniors Heather Tracy, Cameron Cassinelli and Megan Dettling.

“I feel really good about who we have returning to the team this season,” Rayman said. “All of our seniors have been great leaders and I feel like our freshmen are learning a lot from them.”

Myrissa Prince and Amanda Barham round out the talented quintet of seniors. The five of them drove in a combined 153 runs last season accounting for 60.7% of the Yellowjackets’ scoring output.

Tracy was named first-team all GNAC for the second consecutive season last year after finishing with a .458 batting average which was second best in the conference. Not only was the outfielder great at putting the ball in play, she also showed good power with six home runs, eight doubles and three triples adding up to a .637 slugging percentage. She currently holds the MSUB record for career batting average at .405 and is just one triple away from tying the school’s career record with seven. She is also a threat on the base paths with an MSUB record 39 steals in just three seasons. Tracy stole 13 bases last season and has collected 10 or more swipes in each season at MSUB.

“Heather works so hard and earns every bit of her success,” Rayman said about the right fielder. “There are never any days off for her and she is constantly figuring out what adjustments can improve her game. She is really smart on the field and can make sneaky plays that can wake up an offense and create opportunities for our team. I just expect her to play her game and I think that will result in a great senior year for her.”

Cassinelli drove in a school-record 51 runs last season and will be a staple in the middle of the order this season. She is just three home runs shy of becoming the ‘Jackets’ all-time leader in home runs after collecting 13 dingers last season. She was third in the GNAC with a .725 slugging percentage on her way to being named second team all-conference as a junior.

One of the best two-way players in the conference, Dettling was labeled first-team all-west region for her work in the circle and at the plate last season. She finished with 10 home runs and a .364 batting average while pitching 15 complete games and picking up seven wins. Dettling was second in the GNAC with 102 strikeouts last season and finished the season with a 5.51 ERA.

“Cam, Megan, Myrissa and Amanda all have the experience from winning GNAC their freshmen year,” Rayman added. “They all know what it is like to play at this level and they have high expectations for this team. I don’t think they’re going to settle for a mediocre season from this talented group.”

Also returning to the circle is sophomore Maddy Lincoln who led the team with eight wins last season while pitching 131.2 innings with a 5.37 ERA. The ‘Jackets will turn to a swarm of newcomers to provide relief and a third starting option with local products Abbey Bryan and Brittanee Fisher showing early promise.

Fisher, much like Dettling, has the opportunity to find a two-way role for the ‘Jackets as she brings an advanced hitting approach after finishing her high school career at Billings Senior. Coach Rayman hopes to find opportunities for the freshman to get game-experience in the circle before the ‘Jackets turn to conference play in March.

“I am very excited for Brittanee,” Rayman said of the Billings native. “She has a lot of power potential at the plate it will just be a matter to how she adjusts to the increase in velocity and movement from pitchers at this level. She has the tools to succeed right away. Brittanee has the chance to put in the work to become a major pitching presence for us. We just need her to get that confidence and consistency at this level and she will find a spot in our rotation. I know she and Abbey are excited to represent Billings and they’re going to do a great job.”

Prince will continue to be a staple in the middle of the MSUB defense after starting every game over the past two seasons and holding a career fielding percentage of .965 at second base. She will be joined by junior Jessica Bagnell and transfer Kelsee Bushell in MSUB’s middle infield rotation. Bushell brings versatility to the field and was the leader in home runs, RBI, doubles and runs scored last season while batting .439 at Lamar Community College in Colorado. Bagnell has been a solid contributor to the Yellowjacket defense the past two seasons and recorded 62 putouts as a sophomore. The Polson, Mont. native hit three doubles and scored nine runs in 34 starts last season.

The outfield will feature Tracy in right with Barham in center and Vanessa Almario and freshman Allie Hughes each spending time in left. Barham scored 18 runs and delivered a career-best nine RBI as a junior. She was perfect in the field but only saw 59 plate appearances due to injury. Making the most of just 29 at bats a season ago, Almario collected three home runs and eight RBI on eight hits last season. She will look to capitalize on an expanded role in her junior year. Hughes, like Barham and Almario, is one of five Sparks, Nev. natives on the ‘Jackets.

“Allie surprised us right away in preseason training,” Rayman said of the freshman. “She has been making solid contact at the plate while making minor adjustments to her swing without missing a beat. With her consistency so far, I believe she can do some great things for us. Our entire freshman class has a lot of promise and I think the future here is looking bright for MSUB Softball.”

Behind the plate, Madison Kelly will resume her role after starting 39 games last season. Shayla Felix will also put in work behind the plate as the two catchers form a complimentary tandem.

“They both have a good presence behind the plate,” coach Rayman said of Kelly and Felix. “Maddie has the GNAC experience and familiarity with Megan (Dettling) and Maddy (Lincoln), plus she does a good job of taking command of our defense from the catcher position. I’ve been really impressed with Shayla’s consistency, she has come in and has worked well with our pitchers and Maddie (Kelly). Catching is one of the toughest positions on the field and I think it will be an advantage for us to have the depth with two good players there.”

The ‘Jackets will look to fill the void left by the departure of Bella Rovens and Kelsey Devlin who each started all 49 games for MSUB last season. Rovens leaves the program as the career leader in games played, games started, at bats, runs, hits and walks. Devlin finished her senior season hitting .321 with 11 homeruns and 10 doubles while driving in 38 runs.

GNAC PRESEASON POLL: Last season the Yellowjackets finished in seventh-place in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference with a record of 16-33, 10-18 GNAC. In the conference preseason poll, their peers picked MSUB to take a step forward and finish sixth but the ‘Jackets have their eyes set on a GNAC tournament berth.

“Last year was instrumental for me as a coach to really get immersed in our conference,” Rayman noted about the difference heading into her second year at MSUB. “I know what to expect and we have 10 returners that know what it takes to compete in the GNAC. Though we are still young, we know a lot more about each other this season and have the same vision as we head into the season. We are going to take it one game at a time but we definitely want to be in the top four to give ourselves a chance in the GNAC Tournament.”

Central Washington has been tabbed to repeat as regular season champs with Western Washington placing second in the poll. The Wildcats finished last season 20-8 in conference just ahead of WWU’s 19-9 mark. The Viking won the GNAC Tournament in Lacey, Wash. before falling in the NCAA West Regional to Dixie State and Sonoma State.

Northwest Nazarene, Western Oregon and Saint Martin’s all tied for third place in the preseason poll just ahead of MSUB. Concordia and Simon Fraser were picked seventh and eighth respectively.

CALENDAR CAPSULE: Starting with games this Friday and ending on March 30, the Yellowjackets will play the first 30 games of their season on the road. Sixteen of those 30 will be neutral site contests.

“It will be a challenge for us to start the season with so many games away from home,” Rayman said about the schedule. “But it isn’t a surprise to us, we know we are going to have to travel until our field is ready. We have a lot of girls from Nevada, Arizona and California so it is a good opportunity to get out to some other places that we have a lot of support.”

MSUB will open GNAC play on March 3, against Simon Fraser in Burnaby, B.C. before heading to Central Washington for four games in Ellensburg, Wash.

Starting with Western Washington on March 30, the Yellowjackets will finish the season on stretch of 20 GNAC games with 16 being hosted at Avitus Group Stadium. MSUB will host Concordia (April 7-8), Saint Martin’s (April 14-15) and Northwest Nazarene (April 27-28). Their only road trip in April will come when they visit Western Oregon from April 21-22.

HOW TO FOLLOW: All five of MSUB’s Desert Stinger games as well as all home and GNAC road contests throughout the season will be streamed with live stats. Links for each game can be found by navigating to the MSUB Stretch Internet Portal through the softball schedule page.

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