JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (February 13, 2006) - The ETSU spring sports season is about to hit full swing, as the Lady Bucs softball team is set to open its season, Wednesday, February 15, when Furman comes to Metro-Kiwanis Park. The first pitch of the double header is slated for 1 p.m., with the second game to follow at 3 p.m.
:: Season Preview ::
The 2006 season will begin a new era of Lady Bucs softball, marking first-year head coach Andrea Roberts' first season at the helm, as well as the first year of action in the Atlantic Sun Conference.
Though 2006 will feature many firsts for the Lady Bucs, the squad will also get much-needed experience from seniors and perennial starters Courtney Jenkins, Jessica Lonsinger, and last season's conference player of the year Janine Sprague.
Also adding a new face to an already young squad will be seven freshmen, making up nearly half of ETSU's 18-athlete roster, which includes only five upperclassmen.
"Our freshman class will keep everyone on their toes," said Roberts of her rookie contingent. "They are great competitors with a lot of talent. The returners will see more depth than they've had in the past, because the freshmen will contribute right away."
:: Pitching ::
Though the Lady Bucs will be putting some new faces on the mound this season, the pitching staff will be anchored by Jenkins, who went 14-15 last season. Jenkins sported a 2.23 ERA in 2005, posting 94 strikeouts in 34 appearances.
"Courtney led the team on the mound last season," said Roberts of her top hurler. "She will bring consistency and composure, and will really help our young staff with her leadership and experience."
The only other returning pitchers are sophomores Brittney Lehrschall and Amanda Haverman, who both had limited appearances last season. Lehrschall picked up two wins in 28 appearances, while Haverman took the mound a mere four times.
"Brittany didn't have a ton of outings last season," said Roberts. "But I see her winning some big games for us this season. She brings a finesse style to the mound and great velocity. Amanda was really getting into the groove this fall. She has a tremendous amount of power and will bring a great mix to our staff."
Completing the ETSU staff will be freshman Mary Catherine Vercoe, an in-state hurler out of Signal Mountain, Tenn.
"Mary Catherine has done a great job already this fall," said Roberts on the rookie. "She handled the strong hitting line of a Virginia Tech offense that was ranked in the top 15 last season. She has a ton of power, and a different style that will bring a lot of versatility to our staff."
Though only returning one hurler with extensive collegiate experience, Roberts and company see their pitching staff as one of the team's greatest strengths.
"Our versatility on the mound will be one of our greatest assets," said Roberts. "We will be able to mix it up a lot, hopefully keeping our opponents off balance at the plate."
:: Infield ::
Leading the troops in the infield will be senior backstop Jessica Lonsinger. Lonsinger started 55 of 58 games last season, while playing nearly flawless defense, boasting a .988 field percentage.
"Jessica will be the captain of our infield," said Roberts. "Her knowledge and experience behind the plate will keep the defense on their toes at all times."
Also returning to the ETSU infield will be junior Stephanie Gaynord. Gaynord hit .288 last season, the second-best average on the team, posting 47 hits and 21 RBI in 58 starts. The junior, who has arguably the most experience of any Lady Buc infielder, will get the nod at shortstop.
Sophomore Briana Knight, who had a commendable rookie campaign in right field in 2005, will make the move to second base this season. Knight made 55 starts last season, batting .223, the best average of any freshman.
Vying to earn the starting spots at the corners will be junior Allison Burnette and sophomore Melissa McCall. McCall made 43 starts last season, while Burnette saw action in 18 contests. Also in the mix will be freshman Jessica Hackworth, who can play shortstop or third base.
"Jessica did a great job for us in the fall, and will help us out both at the plate and in the field," Roberts said of her infield. "First base will be a tossup, depending on whose bat is alive."
:: Outfield ::
Last season's conference player of the year Janine Sprague will manage the ETSU outfield. The only returning starter from the 2005 outfield, Sprague will see action in either right or left field.
"It's a definite advantage to have such a talented athlete returning to our squad," said Roberts of Sprague. "But we realize that this is a new season and a new conference, and everyone is starting with a clean slate."
The rest of the outfield is anybody's guess, with a pair of sophomores and a quartet of freshmen battling for playing time, making for both a deep and competitive roster.
"Amanda Haverman will likely play a dual role on the mound and in right field," Roberts said. "Stephanie Cope didn't see a lot of action last season, but we're hopeful she can be a consistent player in left, possibly center."
:: Hitting ::
Another of the Lady Bucs' greatest strengths will be power at the plate, led by senior duo Sprague and Lonsinger.
"We have a ton of power at the plate," said Roberts. "We're hoping the strength of our lineup will score some big runs for us down the road."
Sprague was the Lady Bucs leading hitter in 2005, batting .358 with 62 hits on the season.
"Janine doesn't settle for second and it shows in her clutch performances at the plate," said Roberts. "Her power at the plate will bring great depth to the middle of our lineup."
Roberts also expects to see a hitting improvement from Lonsinger, who tallied 28 hits, including six doubles in 2005.
"Jessica's hitting has taken off to a new level this fall," commented Roberts. "She is a true power hitter who will really clean up the bases for us."
:: The Schedule ::
The Lady Bucs kick off the season on Feb. 15, as Furman comes to town for an early-seaon double header. ETSU will then hit the road for the rest of February and early March, making stops at tournaments at Mississippi State, Chattanooga, Georgia Tech, and Winthrop.
While in tournament play, the Lady Bucs will see a series of challenging opponents including Mississippi State, Virginia, and UAB. ETSU will also get a preview of its upcoming A-Sun schedule when it faces Belmont in Chattanooga in a non-conference matchup.
"We'll be thrown into the fire early on," said Roberts of the team's non-conference slate. "But that will only make us stronger for the conference portion of the season. We've got some great teams on the schedule, so that will really help us evaluate ourselves."
Throughout the season, ETSU will see a variety of non-conference opponents, including Eastern Kentucky, Western Carolina, Appalachian State, as well as major-conference powerhouses Tennessee, Georgia Tech, and Virginia Tech.
:: The Atlantic Sun ::
After hitting the early season tournament trail, the Lady Bucs will play their first-ever Atlantic Sun contest on March 18, when they travel to fellow A-Sun newbie Kennesaw State.
Next up is another first-year member North Florida, on March 24, in Jacksonville. The Lady Bucs will finally see a team with A-Sun experience when they face Jacksonville on March 26.
"The new additions of ETSU, Kennesaw State, and North Florida will definitely bring a whole new face to an already competitive league," said Roberts. "Powerhouses Troy and UCF are gone, but I think these replacements will step in and compete for the top slots right away."
ETSU will play half of its A-Sun series at home, giving fans a chance to see the new conference first hand, beginning with Campbell on April 8. The Campbell series will mark the start of an A-Sun home stand, which will feature Florida Atlantic, last season's regular season runner-up, on April 13, and Mercer on April 15.
The Lady Bucs finish out A-Sun play with Belmont on April 20, Stetson and Gardner-Webb at home on April 23, and 29, before completing conference play at Lipscomb on May 5.
"I think we will be a little underrated going into the season," commented Roberts. "But that's fine with me, because high expectations can often be a disadvantage. I think we will really gain some respect as we move through the season."