SPOTLIGHT: Chaffin ‘in the middle’ of Lady Demons’ tournament chances

ADJUSTING WELL:  Airline High product Makenzie Chaffin has settled into new roles offensively and defensively this spring for Northwestern State.

By MATT VINES, Journal Sports

NATCHITOCHES – Just be yourself.

That’s what Northwestern State outfielder Makenzie Chaffin had to keep in mind this spring.

Chaffin, who has worked her way into a starting role as a third-year sophomore, was trying to swing with power as the Lady Demon softball team’s cleanup hitter.

But the lanky, left-handed hitter is more apt to place a seeing-eye single with runners on base.

“I’ve never been a cleanup hitter, and I was trying to be that typical cleanup hitter,” Chaffin said. “But (NSU coach Donald Pickett) told me to be the same hitter I always was, just in the four hole.

“He still wanted the ground balls through the infield and the shallow line drives.”

Chaffin remains in the middle of the order at the No. 5 slot now, and she’s warmed up to a .275 batting average with hits in five of her last eight games.

NSU (28-20, 10-8 Southland Conference) will attempt to rebound from a sweep at the hands of Southeastern as the conference tournament begins for the No. 4-seed Lady Demons Tuesday in Hammond.

Shallow line drives aren’t the only thing coming off Chaffin’s bat – the Airline High product cranked a three-run homer to beat regular season champion McNeese three weeks ago.

It’s one of her four home runs to go with 24 runs scored and 20 RBIs, all of which are top four on the team.

“Makenzie has done a great job transitioning to the middle of the lineup. She’s someone who has speed and can get on base from the left side of the plate,” Pickett said. “We needed somebody who had speed and could drive in runs to break up the power hitters in the middle of the order, and she’s been able to do that.

“She’s had clutch hits over the course of the season, and she needs to continue to be that line-drive hitter and not be something else.”

Chaffin climbed the depth chart, serving as a pinch runner as a freshman and a pinch hitter as a COVID-19 freshman before cracking the lineup to start the final six games of last season.

She hit .407, including 2-for-3 with two runs scored in an SLC Tournament win against Sam Houston State in 2021.

“I knew I had to work my way up the chain, and when I did get into game as a pinch runner, it was just awesome to play and get extra bases and runs,” Chaffin said. “I was hitting well as a pinch hitter the next year, and Pickett was trying out a couple of different outfielders.

“He tried me out there, and I’ve stayed ever since. Having a handful of starts coming into this year has helped, but I’ve learned it’s harder in the starting lineup because teams have scouting reports and know what to throw you. I’ve been adjusting better and seeing the ball better after trying to do too much for a long time.”

The other big adjustment has come in the field.

Chaffin has been a middle infielder all her life, although she knew a move to outfield in college was likely because of her height and athleticism.

She learned behind All-Southland Conference outfielders Hayley Barbazon, Elise Vincent and Kaitlyn St. Clair, and now she’s putting the lessons to use.

Chaffin flashed her arm strength against McNeese, throwing a screamer to home plate after a medium-depth fly ball to start a triple play.

“McNeese had runners on second and third because I made an error on the previous play,” the left-fielder said. “I was so upset … but then I caught a pop fly and threw it home, not realizing that the throw went right into the glove as the runner slid into the tag.

“We were super hyped, and the runner that moved to third base thought we weren’t paying attention and tried to go home, but we got her in a rundown. I’ve never been part of anything like that, but it was the least I could do get the first two outs after making the error.”

More clutch defensive and offensive plays from Chaffin could mean an SLC Tournament title and an NCAA trip.

One possible regionals location? LSU, where sister Raelin Chaffin has fought her way into a starting pitching role as a freshman for the No. 19 Tigers.

Even if the sisters don’t square off this year, LSU is a typical midweek opponent in most seasons for the Lady Demons.

“That would be so cool,” Makenzie said. “Raelin has been playing so well, and we talk every day as best friends.

“To play against each other would be super, super cool and a good memory to tell our families. It would be a good experience no matter how it went, and to play in the regionals at LSU this year would be the greatest thing ever.”

Just like her winding path to Northwestern.

Chaffin, who had an offer from NSU, initially signed a full academic scholarship to then-Division III UT Tyler before the Patriots’ move to Division II impacted her compensation.

“Being from Louisiana, TOPS was too good to pass up, and I called Pickett back in January of my senior year,” Chaffin recalls. “He had given all his money away, but he said I’d always have a place on his team.

“I can say with confidence now that I was supposed to end up here. I love it here, and it’s been a great experience.”

Photo by CHRIS REICH, Northwestern State

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