College 2024 Preview: Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville Looks to Build Upon Successful finish to 2023 Campaign

By Jeff Strange

2023 Overall Record                                     2023 Ohio Valley Conference Record

                        30-26                                                                           12-10

Coming off a 30-26 season, the Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville softball team heads into the 2024 campaign with high hopes of contending for another strong run in the Ohio Valley Conference. The Cougars caught fire in the OVC tournament last spring held at Choccolocco Park in Oxford, AL by closing out the event with a 4-2 record and bringing home second place overall, falling short to Eastern Illinois University in the OVC Championship game.

Head coach Ben Sorden enters his second season at the helm for the Cougars program, taking over after spending nearly the last decade as an assistant coach in the Big Ten Conference at Michigan State and Indiana, where he helped guide the pitching staffs to national honors and top-notch results.

Top Gun Events Media caught up with Coach Sorden to get his feedback on several key elements for the SIUE Cougars Softball Program:

Last season was your first at the helm with SIUE…how would you describe your experience taking over the program?

“I knew coming in, the focus was going to be on culture; we as a coaching staff had to get them to believe in themselves and trust each other, as well as trust us. Of course, there was initial excitement and skepticism, but eventually we gained their trust, but most importantly, they began to trust themselves.”

After spending the previous several seasons as an assistant coach at Michigan State and U. of Indiana, were there any adjustments on your end moving into the role of a head coach?

“The game is the game, we don’t adjust our standards. Our job is to coach them up to the standard to the best of our ability. Sure, MSU and IU may have more resources, but I also spent a significant amount of time at Coe College, a small DIII school. I have witnessed the haves and the have nots – you learn what is important and what is fluff. We are blessed to have amazing training and playing facilities at SIUE, outstanding athletic performance coaches, a mental performance advisor, excellent student-athlete support services and a beautiful campus that sells itself.”

The SIUE Cougars come together after a come-from-behind victory against St. Louis University in March 8, 2023

You have a strong reputation for churning out successful pitching staffs and developing pitchers…are there any particular approaches that you have developed to help aid in the success of arms on teams that you have been a part of?

“I’m a believer in being a master of few rather than mediocre of many when it comes to pitching. If the game is on the line, do you want to attack the hitter with your best pitch or your fourth best pitch? Everyone has a unique ability and we just try to find what each of us does well and polish that up. Additionally, I empower the pitchers to have control in what they are throwing. They learn to read swings, they learn to read situations, and they know what they want to throw in the moment. We also look to our catchers for valuable information; they make us better. Our catchers are our eyes and know what pitches are moving the best as well as what the umpire is calling. In the end, we just try and help them be the best version of themselves.”

Can you give some background information on your coaching staff?

“I’ve known Coach Courtney Gentile for a number of years. She played at Ohio State and has a very competitive spirit. She was a hitter that pitched (rather than a pitcher that hits) and also played outfield and first base for the Buckeyes. She is even able to throw left-handed batting practice! Courtney works with our hitters and our outfield.

Caitlin Wnek was added to the staff this fall; she was previously an assistant at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse. I have known Caitlin since she was in high school and then followed her career when she went on to be a 4-year starting shortstop at UNI, where she holds the career doubles record for the Panthers. She works with our infielders and hitters. She keeps the game fun and likes to come up with competitive challenges for our hitters and fielders. Most recently, Caitlin was named the DIII Assistant Coach of the Year by the National Fastpitch Coaches Association while at UW-LaCrosse.”

Can you hit on some key points/highlights from this past season?

“As a team, we were 2nd in the league in hitting and led the league in shut outs, stolen bases and strikeouts looking. Before conference, we had a good weekend in Memphis where things started to click for us, then a nice come from behind win against SLU, which taught us we were never out of any game. We then tried to just keep building confidence week by week and building momentum.

I am extremely proud that 11 of the 19 players were named NFCA All American Scholar Athletes. We emphasize excelling on the field, in the classroom and in the community. Being a champion starts with a championship mindset and that is doing everything to the best of our ability in all facets of our life.

Individually, Paige Rocha paced the league hitting .416 overall and .434 in conference. For her efforts, she was named All Region and All Conference. She is back and we are excited for her leadership. Lexi King was 2nd in the league in hitting, led the OVC in stolen bases and was 7th in the country in doubles. She is one of the most competitive players I have ever coached; we will obviously miss her. Syd Baalman was also an All-Conference selection and really got hot in the circle for us last season. She grew from a thrower to a pitcher during the season and peaked at the conference tournament. Grace Lueke is also back for her senior campaign after hitting .315 in conference with 6 homeruns. We look forward to her leadership this year.”

Senior Pitcher Sydney Baalman (top) and Junior Infielder Paige Rocha (bottom) are two key returning pieces to the Cougars roster in 2024

Taking home a second-place finish in the OVC tournament last season, can you describe some of your thoughts on the event?

“We had a great run in Oxford; it was a nice facility and the field crew was great, they did a great job with the venue. It was a competitive tournament and I enjoyed how we competed. It was a great tournament to build momentum for our program.”

Can you give some analysis/perspective on your team for 2024?

“Returners Rylie Pindel, Piper Montgomery, Lauryn Yslava and Jenny Herron have really upped their game and had significant contributions this fall. Kelsey Ray continues to improve and her senior leadership will be key in the circle.

We brought in 11 new faces this year – 5 transfers and 6 freshmen. Sisters Anna and Emma Henderson transferred in from the University of Iowa and will add power at the plate and experience in the circle and behind the dish. A pair of DMACC Bears, NJCAA All American third baseman Madison Kearns and NJCAA All Region shortstop Kaylynn Salyars each found their way to Edwardsville. NJCAA All American Outfielder Danielle Shuey, who led the nation in triples and hails from Danville Area Community College, rounds out the list of transfers.

Newcomers Maleah Blomenkamp, Amber Morgan, Abby Harvell, Jenna Little, Harley Limberger and Reese Ray add depth, additional speed and power to supplement an already talented team. We are excited about this group as they love to compete and have fun doing so.  They should be a fun team to watch.”

What are your short-term goals for the program?

“In the short-term, we want to build off of the momentum from last season. Earning a trip to and competing in a regional is at the forefront of our minds, but we need to focus on what we can control to help get us there.”

What are your long-term goals for the program?

“Long-term, we want to build a more competitive program that is recognized as a tough, gritty mid-major team who excels on the field and in the classroom.”

Lastly, do you have any information to share for prospective athletes in regards to camp information for 2024?

“All camps can be found at:

We will add an elite camp this summer as well as 2 fall prospect camps and continue our winter academies for local players.”

*The SIUE Cougars will open their season on February 9th at the Frank Griffin Classic in Deland, FL squaring off against Boston University and Stetson University that Friday afternoon.*

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