The Saluki softball offense has been among the best in the Missouri Valley Conference the past four years because of their hitting coach.
Associate head coach Jen Sewell has begun her fifth year with the position, and her seventh year at SIU.
As hitting coach, Sewell led the Salukis to the top five in the MVC in batting average, walks, slugging percentage, RBIs and on-base percentage in the last four years.
This year, the Salukis are using ProStar Coach, an online coaching system, for the first time.
Sewell said she learned about it from Holly Hesse, the coach at conference rival Missouri State. Sewell met Hesse at the NCAA Women’s Coaching Academy in 2013 and adopted the idea of using the system at SIU afterward.
The online program tests players’ skills in the mental side of the game that can not be done at practice, Sewell said. Coaches can pick from a list of pre-programmed lessons for the athletes to learn from.
She said the team has worked on areas such as personal strengths, communication skills and hitting.
“Kids have to read and write about it, and then reflect on it,” she said. “Then they come up with a 48-hour plan to develop short term habits for long term change.”
Sewell said the program sends coaches and teammates results, and players can choose to send their results to parents, friends and mentors as an outside support system.
Sewell’s philosophy is to accumulate more balls than strikes in the count by taking close pitches.
“I want to lead [the conference] in hitting percentage and walks, and I want to hit home runs by accident because we’re swinging hard for the gaps,” she said. “You’ll see us get a big swing off early in the count if we work into a hitters count.”
Sewell said she does not stress winning the MVC batting title, but focuses more on quality at-bats. She said the team’s batting average is not where she wants it, but will improve when the team can settle into a consistent lineup.
Coaching hitting is about coaching players individually, not as a group, Sewell said.
“We work a lot on each hitter understanding what their swing does and doesn’t do for them,” she said.
Sophomore pitcher and infielder Shaye Harre never worked with a hitting coach before college but used to come to SIU for Sewell’s hitting camps. Last season Harre was a second team All-MVC player after batting .329 with 43 RBIs, the second most in school history for a freshman. She said Sewell is laid back, but gets her point across when need be.
“That’s how I am too, so it’s nice to have a coach like that” Harre said. “You can’t do anything when you put too much pressure on yourself, so it’s nice that she is relaxed.”
Coach Kerri Blaylock said Sewell is the best hitting coach she has had in her 16 years at SIU.
“She’s done a remarkable job and she made an impact right away,” Blaylock said. “She’s very knowledgeable and the kids understand how to hit better now than they ever have.”
Junior infielder Kelsey Gonzalez said Sewell allows players to work through their mistakes instead of yelling at them to fix it.
Gonzalez improved her batting average from .210 to .328 from her freshman to sophomore year.
“She has a lot of insight as a coach, as a former player,” Gonzalez said. “She can tell what we’re feeling and she knows what it’s like when we’re struggling.”
Sewell played for Ohio University from 1997 to 2000 and is in the top five in its program history in games played, at-bats, doubles and RBIs. She said she was not able to work with a hitting coach until late in her high school career because it was not as common then.
“I’m starting to feel the age difference, and now I’m continuing to learn to coach,” she said.
The team had the least amount of strikeouts in the MVC in 2011 and 2012 and its .290 batting average in 2012 was the highest by the team in 15 years.
Sewell coached Jayna Spivey and Taylor Orsburn, the top two RBI producers in SIU history with 147 and 137 respectively. He said she hopes the freshman and sophomore classes can continue success of the Salukis’ previous four years.
“Our seniors and juniors have set a tone that we’re not going to have hitters coming in that can’t get the job done,” she said. “We have had two classes in a row that are probably among the most athletic to ever play here.”
Brent Meske can be reached at [email protected] or 536-3311 ext. 269.