COLUMBIA — Whitni Howell knows how to break in a bat.
During softball practice on Wednesday, the freshman stepped into the batter's box. Brand new bat shouldered, Howell took a wide, crouching stance and awaited the pitch. She twisted her hips and followed through. The ping of barrel on ball echoed throughout the field.
“One swing, and I knew I loved the new bats,” Howell said.
Howell’s appreciation for the Cougars' new equipment might have been influenced by the fact that with it, she hit her first home run off a scoreboard at Cougar Field. A resounding clank was followed by laughter and smiles across the practice field. Hitting coach Joe Henderson was as excited as the players.
“Did you hear that?” Henderson said. “Right into the wind, too.”
Assistant coach Linda Diller produced another lively moment while playing left field for batting practice. Diller, an outfielder for Columbia College from 2008 to 2009, chased after a deep fly ball hit by sophomore Chelsie Crain. At the last moment, Diller dove and slid on the grass. The neon green ball wedged safely in her glove. Players in the infield erupted in cheers after the play.
"Chelsie, call the police, baby, 'cause you just got robbed," Henderson shouted from the infield.
The team burst into laughter; nothing could sour its mood.
The spectacular plays were a symptom of the upbeat attitude among the Cougars (12-5), who jumped from No. 20 to No. 12 in the NAIA rankings released Monday.
News of the rankings spread quickly through the team, though few people knew about it Monday when it was announced.
Head coach Wendy Spratt learned about the team's new ranking after Monday's practice and shouted, “We’re number 12,” to assistant coaches and the few players lingering around the practice field. Those that heard Spratt’s news responded with cheers, including Valerie Teter, senior co-captain and last week's American Midwest Conference Player of the Week.
Spratt has preached to the team that it needs to set little goals. The team hasn't set any goals regarding national rankings, but Spratt has.
“Ultimately, my goal is to be in the top 10,” Spratt said.
The team's confidence comes from its ability to play with difficult competition. The Cougars lost 2-1 earlier in the season against No. 2 William Carey.
The Cougars could get one step closer to Spratt’s goal if they win Thursday against McKendree (13-8). After McKendree, the Cougars will travel to California for tough games against No. 1 California Baptist (33-1) and No. 4 California State-San Marcos (28-5).
Spratt's only concern is the lack of on-field practice the Cougars have had.
“I told them that these other teams have been practicing everyday outside, and we’ve only had three days,” Diller said. “But we’re good enough to give each of these teams a good game.”
The Cougars' doubleheader against McKendree starts at 2 p.m. Thursday in Lebanon, Ill.