Steve Cassady freely admits he doesn't have a lot of faith in freshmen.
All that matters to the Merced College softball coach is results. And if a freshman isn't ready to come in and contribute right away, playing time can be, well ... Sparse. It can be even more difficult to come by on a sophomore-laden roster. Beth Flowers and Ashley Franklin can attest to that.
While their freshman counterpart Nicole Blades-Moore thrived as the She-Devils' everyday center fielder, Flowers and Franklin toiled away the first part of the season from the bench while attempting to prove their mantle in practice.
"It was a little intimidating at first, knowing everyone else had already competed at this level," Flowers said. "It's tough to watch everyone else out there playing and not feeling like you're contributing.
"I was ready to get on the field."
The wait wasn't long.
Flowers and Franklin's abilities were too prevalent to keep them out of the lineup for long. And once they got in, their contributions became regular fixtures.
With Blades-Moore, Flowers and Franklin producing consistently, MC went from conference-title contender to frontrunner.
"There's no question that their development has helped solidify us," Cassady said "They've done everything we've asked of them and have really come through nicely."
Blades-Moore has set the bar, surprising both herself and her coach with a monster freshman campaign.
The She-Devil dual-sport star has done nothing but hit, leading a potent MC attack with a .372 average and 26 RBI. Her 18 extra-base hits rank second, only behind All-CVC first-teamer Mallory Bair.
Blades-Moore has been so consistent, she's inherited MC's cleanup spot.
"Traditionally I don't put freshmen up high in the order unless they're Hannah Low, Trina Puckett or Megan McColloch," Cassady said. "People that you see from the first day of practice are going to come through.
"I didn't know much about (Blades-Moore) coming out of Orestimba, but I knew she was capable of this the first time I saw her hit off of the tees."
Flowers contribution has been every bit as important, helping smooth McColloch's transition into the pitching rotation by providing solid play at third in her stead.
The dual-sport star can mash too.
In 38 games Flowers has hit .272 with a home run and 12 RBI. Those numbers are only going to increase as she matures.
No She-Devil drives more balls over the fence in practice than Flowers.
"We all feel more a part of the team now," Flowers said. "You don't really feel like you're contributing when you're just cheering the team on.
"It feels good to know that the freshmen are making an impact."
It took Franklin a while to regularly crack the MC lineup, but the smooth swinging lefty has rewarded Cassady's faith.
Her .339 average ranks fifth on the team and she's belted a remarkable eight doubles in just 59 at-bats.
Cassady enjoys the trio's offensive productivity, but they continue to get playing time because the team loses nothing defensively when they're in the lineup.
That's no small feat considering that neither Franklin nor Blades-Moore were outfielders when they came to MC.
With no one returning he felt was suited to play center field, Cassady said he gave Blades-Moore the job on a whim.
The experiment has proved successful with Blades-Moore only committing two errors in 40 games.
"I was excited about it," Blades-Moore said. "I never played the outfield, but I thought it was something I could do.
"The toughest part is that on our field, center always has to deal with the sun. I think its gone pretty well, though."
That's probably an understatement.
MC (14-2 CVC, 30-14) heads into today's CVC showdown having won 19 of its last 23 games, needing just one win its dobuleheader with Sequoias to grab a share of the CVC title.
A sweep and the title is the She-Devils outright.
The freshmen don't see the team's strong finish as a coincidence.
"We've noticed the difference," Franklin said. "I think it shows how well we've managed to mesh as a team."
Sean Lynch is a Sun-Star sports writer. He can be reached at 385-2476 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was originally published April 17, 2008 5:39 AM.