Lady Eagles open SAC play at Catawba on Saturday
JEFFERSON CITY – With a relatively young line-up this season, Carson-Newman softball coach Vickee Kazee-Hollifield expected growing pains along the way.
But 22 games into the schedule, Hollifield knows the Lady Eagles must start playing with more consistency if they want to extend their current streak of seven straight NCAA Division II Tournament appearances in 2012.
Carson-Newman will get its first South Atlantic Conference test Saturday afternoon when it travels to Catawba to open league play. First pitch of the doubleheader is set for 1 p.m.
"We've got to lace 'em up tight and be ready to go this weekend," said Hollifield, who currently has 942 career wins in her 27 seasons at the helm of the Lady Eagles. "Catawba is quick, they have great bat speed, and they attack. They won't back down, and we have to have that same mentally."
Carson-Newman is currently 15-7 overall, and has both some impressive wins and some head scratchers, according to Hollifield.
This past weekend at the Mid-South Classic in Spartanburg, the Lady Eagles defeated nationally-ranked teams No. 23 Flagler and No. 6 Armstrong Atlantic.
Carson-Newman has played five games against teams that made the NCAA Tournament a year ago, and has went 4-1 in those matchups. The lone loss came to No. 4 North Georgia last Friday.
But the Lady Eagles have also lost to teams such as Queens University (8-12 overall) and King College (6-8).
"Beating those Peach Belt schools (Flagler and AAU), they are always extremely tough teams," Hollifield said. "But at the same time, we've lost a couple of games that player-for-player should not have happened."
"We've got to do a better job of being game-ready every time we take the field. Playing with effort, that's got to be innate."
The Lady Eagles went 41-17-1 a year ago, finishing second in the SAC and advancing to the region finals of the NCAA tournament.
Hollifield has had to replace several starters off that squad, including both her middle infielders. Her starting infield this season consists of two freshmen and two sophomores.
"We have made more errors in the infield that I would have liked, and that comes with youth," the coach said. "But 20-something games into the season, I would have hoped that wouldn't be the case anymore."
"We are not going to use youth as an excuse. We are going to line up and play like we are capable of."
Hollifield has three senior starters on the roster, highlighted by pitcher Mary Shealy, who currently leads the nation in wins with 15. At the plate, a quad injury kept Shealy out of the line-up for several weeks, but she has returned to the clean-up spot and is currently batting a team-best .344.
"We go as Mary goes," Hollifield noted. "She has started every game in the circle for us this year. We are putting a lot on her shoulders."
"Whaley had a strong bat early on, and that's something our team definitely needs," Hollifield said. "Skeen has had an injury the past two years, but she is batting lead-off for us right now and is starting to be aggressive at the plate. She is starting to look like that kid again that I recruited several years ago."
Other returning starters from last year include sophomore first baseman Caitlyn Lance, junior catcher Bri Shoemake and sophomore third baseman Sarah Kelley. All three are currently batting .333 or higher on the year.
Freshmen Jessica Morgan and Shelby Robertson round out the starting infield. Walters State junior transfer Cassie Elliott has been starting in the outfield, but is currently batting an injury. Freshmen Bethany Davis and Brittany Bass have seen action in reserve.
With so many underclassmen forced into the role of being key contributors, Hollifield is looking for some of them to step up and become more confident as they gain experience – particularly in the field.
"I'm not saying we have poor leadership," Hollifield said. "It would just be nice to have a kid or two out there in the infield that has been in the trenches for a while."
"The chemistry is good. We've just got to toughen up, and we need to have better communication in the infield."
Carson-Newman will play at Belmont Abbey on Sunday and at Lincoln memorial on Wednesday before returning home for the first time in almost a month. Wingate visits Mossy Creek on March 17 in C-N's SAC home opener.