Lady Eagles open 2011 season on Sunday at Bellarmine
JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. — Despite being picked to finish third in the 2011 South Atlantic Conference race, the Carson-Newman softball team enters the season with expectations of competing for the conference championship.
The Lady Eagles, who went 37-12 a year ago and made a SAC-record sixth straight NCAA tournament appearance, return seven starters from last year's squad and have added five talented newcomers to the mix. C-N is set to open the 2011 campaign on Sunday with a doubleheader at Bellarmine. First pitch is set for 1 p.m.
"We are looking forward to it as always," said C-N head coach Vickee Kazee-Hollifield, who enters her 26th season 14 wins shy of 900 (886-271) for her career. "I know in the conference we are preseason picked No. 3. We still have a goal of trying to have our team prepared to play for a conference championship. That's ultimately our goal and is what we've been working towards."
The Lady Eagles will be looking to win their 14th SAC regular season title and 10th SAC tournament championship this season, but defending champion Lenoir-Rhyne and Wingate stand in their way as the two teams picked to finish first and second, respectively.
Hollifield said the conference will be as strong as ever this season.
"Everybody said that it's a top three race, but there was Mars Hill in it last year," Hollifield stated. "You can't count anyone out. You better lace them up tight and be ready to play no matter who you are playing in the conference. I just look for everybody to be strong, but I think Lenoir-Rhyne and Wingate are two really explosive teams."
C-N will turn to a trio of seniors for leadership this season in Amber Hewitt (Ringgold, Ga.), Leah Price (Spring City, Tenn.) and Whitney Kee (Knoxville, Tenn.), who have a combined 344 starts between them.
Hewitt started 47 games at second base last season and batted .278 with a triple and 10 runs scored. Price, a preseason second team All-SAC selection, started all 49 games a year ago at left field, batting .325 with two doubles, a triple, 13 RBIs and 35 runs scored. She also ranked fourth in the SAC in stolen bases with 22. Kee, who will make the move from third base to shortstop this season, started all 49 games in 2010 and batted .236 with seven doubles, two triples, five home runs and 21 RBIs.
"We really look for those three kids to kind of lead the way," Hollifield said. "They've played a lot of ball and have played in the big tournaments."
Junior pitcher Mary Shealy (Clinton, S.C.) returns to anchor the Lady Eagles' rotation and adds a powerful bat to the lineup. Shealy, a preseason first team All-SAC selection, compiled a 16-8 record in the circle with a 2.35 earned run average last season. She finished ninth in the SAC in strikeouts with 103 and led the conference in saves with five. She was also one of C-N's most reliable options at the plate, finishing the season with a .366 batting average with seven doubles, six home runs and 24 RBIs.
"She pitched really, really effectively the last half of the season and then into tournament time last year," Hollifield offered. "We are hoping for her to pick up right where she left off."
"Jessie is not going to overpower anybody but she has wonderful command of her pitches and just gets the job done," Hollifield said.
Sophomore Bri Shoemake (Ooltewah, Tenn.) will be handling the duties behind the plate after a stellar freshman campaign. Shoemake, who earned preseason second team All-SAC honors, started all 49 games as a true freshman and batted .344 with 17 doubles, one triple and two home runs. She was among the conference leaders in hits (55) and RBIs (41).
"She had an excellent freshman year, and we are looking for her to even step it up another notch and really be a leader out there for us," Hollifield said.
Freshman Sara Kelley (Birchwood, Tenn.) will get the start at third base after a solid career at Ooltewah High School in Ooltewah, Tenn. Sophomore Ashley Tharp (Morristown, Tenn.) will also see time at third base and designated player.
"(Kelley) has a strong bat and played good competition throughout her high school career," Hollifield said. "We are really looking for her to help us."
Junior Cassidy Skeen (Powell, Tenn.) will get the nod at center field after making 35 starts in 2010. Freshman Dariayn Wright (Murfreesboro, Tenn.) will also see time at center field and will provide the Lady Eagles with some much-needed speed on the base pads.
"(Wright) is probably one of the fastest kids I've coached since I've been here at Carson-Newman," Hollifield said. "We have to find a way to get her in the lineup."
Rounding out the lineup in right field will be junior Kim Whaley (Maryville, Tenn.). Whaley batted .313 last season with nine RBIs. Sophomore Sarah Humphries (Fayetteville, Tenn.) will also see significant time at right field.
After Sunday's doubleheader at Bellarmine, the Lady Eagles will play their next three doubleheaders at the Lady Eagle Softball Complex, including a matchup with Lees-McRae on Feb. 8 for their home opener. C-N will begin SAC play on March 8 at Mars Hill.
The Lady Eagles are set to host the 2011 Food Lion SAC Tournament, which will begin on April 20.