AURORA | BJ Kingsbaker’s goal as the new head coach of the Smoky Hill softball team is simply to make sure its momentum continues.
The top assistant for the past two seasons under former coach Mark Siemer, Kingsbaker easily slides into the top spot for a rising program that is coming off its first Class 5A state softball appearance in more than a decade.
Siemer announced his departure after four seasons with the Buffs early in the summer and Smoky Hill athletic director John Thompson moved quickly to replace him with the 39-year-old Kingsbaker, who is eager to continue the program’s upward trajectory.
“It’s just a title change, but nothing as far as how things are going to run,” Kingsbaker told the Sentinel. “It was a really easy transition and I’m really excited about it.”
Kingsbaker has his first head coaching job at the varsity level. He said he’s been an assistant coach at both Mountain Range — which won last season’s 5A state championship — as well as Pueblo West, while he has been a club head coach with the Pueblo Azteca program.
He aims to continue the work done by Siemer, who took over Smoky Hill coming off a four-win season in 2011 and helped the program improve to five wins in 2012 and 2013, then up to nine in 2014 and finally to 14-9 last season, when the Buffs made it to the 5A state tournament for the first time since 2004.
Siemer stepped down following the graduation of his daughter Maddie, a first team All-Centennial League pitcher who threw 118 of the Buffs’ 137 innings last season and has signed with Butler Community College in Kansas.
“I’ll miss Mark a lot,” Kingsbaker said. “When he brought me on as an assistant, he wanted there to be a succession plan in place. He put a lot of time into building a program and he wanted to make sure that the right person was in place before he would feel comfortable leaving.”
Last season, the Buffs not only made the state tournament, they nearly turned it upside down on the opening day. As the No. 16 seed, Smoky Hill held a four-run lead over top-seeded Chaparral in extra innings of a first round game, only to see the Wolverines score five times and win 8-7 on a walk-off grand slam. The Buffs gained plenty of confidence from the experience, however.
Smoky Hill returns a solid core headed by the expected battery of juniors Emilie Roberts and Kayla Banks, both All-Centennial League performers last season who Kingsbaker believes are ready to blossom even further this season.
Roberts was a first team all-league pick last season as a catcher and she was also the team’s offensive leader or co-leader in a variety of categories, including batting average (.487), runs scored (30), doubles (10), triples (3) and home runs (5). Banks — a second-team pick a year ago largely for her work with the bat as she hit .449 with 19 RBI — is set to become Smoky Hill’s regular pitcher.
“I think Emilie and Kayla are two of the best players in the state and I don’t think people are talking about them enough,” Kingsbaker said. “They are the two hardest workers and when your hardest workers are your best players, you are in great shape.”
Seniors-to-be Mattie Kennedy, Shayne Walton, Malena Murillo and Laurel Wilson are also part of Smoky Hill’s returning core, while Paige Wood of the now-defunct Bishop Machebeuf program is expected to add to the mix.
Players have showed up to offseason weight training three days per week at nearly a 100 percent clip and Kingsbaker has noted a confidence in his group in how it handles its business that took root last season.
“We’ve made a huge mind shift from years past and we believe that wen can play with anybody at any time,” Kingsbaker said. “They have a goal and they are pretty excited to take the Centennial League by storm this fall.”
Courtney Oakes is Aurora Sentinel Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or email@example.com. Twitter: @aurorasports. FB: Aurora Prep Sentinel