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2013 Liberty Softball Season Outlook
Liberty opens its 20th year of NCAA Division I softball with a youthful roster, eager to regain its championship form that saw the Lady Flames win the conference title two years ago.
The Lady Flames went 19-36 last season, placing sixth in the Big South with a 9-12 conference mark. The 2012 Liberty squad featured five seniors in its batting order, including three former all-conference selections, who will need to be replaced in 2013.
Head Coach Paul Wetmore, in his 20th year at the helm, fields a team with no seniors for the first time since 2006. Liberty's nine-member freshman class is its largest since the 2004 campaign.
"We brought in a large freshman class," Wetmore said. "We have returning starters at catcher and center fielder. We have a lot of inexperienced people in new positions. It's going to be a process to get them prepared to compete and win on a regular basis."
Top returners from 2012 include juniors Katie Zavodny and Sammi Shivock and sophomore Kelby Allen. Zavodny was named to the Big South All-Conference second team and was joined on the VaSID All-State second team by Allen. Shivock earned Big South All-Academic Team inclusion in 2012. The three, along with redshirt junior Jill Stephens, will be looked upon for leadership this season.
The Lady Flames continued to be one of the top offensive teams in the Big South last season, placing second in the conference with 44 homers, while finishing in the top three in most offensive categories. Wetmore sees team speed as an area of improvement this year.
"I think our hitting is a strong point for us. We're going to have power. This team has got more speed than we've ever had before, and is also in the best physical condition they've ever been."
"I'm looking forward to this season," Wetmore added. "I'm optimistic about our team. I think that, realistically, we should be playing in the upper third of the conference standings."
The Lady Flames by Position
Last season, Liberty looked to freshman Chandler Ball and sophomore Alyssa DiMartino to shoulder most of the load in the circle. The Lady Flames are expected to have a deep pitching staff, with five pitchers competing for time in 2013, as the team looks to improve on its 5.20 ERA from a year ago.
"Development of our pitching staff and consistency will be a key," Wetmore said. "We have more depth than we've ever had, now going five pitchers deep. It's a matter of how we manage those people to put us in a position to win."
Ball and freshman Annah Jo Brittingham are top candidates to be starting pitchers this season. DiMartino, along with freshmen Kenzie Friesen and Tara Heatwole, will also compete for time in the circle.
Ball led the Lady Flames with a 10-12 record and 110 strikeouts as a freshman in 2012. She was one of only six Big South pitchers to finish last season with at least 10 wins and 100 strikeouts.
"I believe Chandler has developed a different pitching style and approach to the game coming into her second year," Wetmore said. "I think she's going to be a much better pitcher than she was as a freshman."
Brittingham comes to the Lady Flames from Pocomoke City, Md., where she was a four-time Bayside first team selection. She pitched a two-hit shutout in the state championship game as a freshman.
"Annah really throws the ball well and has a great drop-curve," Wetmore added. "She has great control and is really an intense pitcher. She should give us a lot of innings."
DiMartino paced the Lady Flames with 178 innings pitched in 2012, posting an 8-20 record with a 4.72 ERA. She ranked third in the Big South with 42 appearances last season.
"Alyssa is someone that can be a starter or a relief pitcher. She came here and threw the ball very hard as a freshman," Wetmore said. "Now, she's worked in some off-speed pitches, one of which is a curveball which she really likes."
Kelby Allen, a 2012 VaSID All-State catcher, returns as the projected starter. The sophomore hit .306 with four homers and 21 RBIs last season. Her batting average was the highest by a Liberty freshman since 2005.
"Kelby is a good field general, very vocal, has good catching skills and a very strong arm," Wetmore said. "Her forte is hitting. She's going to hit in either the four or five slot. She's a run producer."
The Lady Flames have several options as Allen's backup. Among them are Kelsey Wood, Amber Donovan, Kassidy McCoy and Sydnei Lester.
Wood, a freshman from Tyler, Texas, was a two-time All-East Texas honoree who was named second team All-State in 2010.
Donovan, who spent her freshman year as Liberty's primary backup catcher, is slotted to play mostly in the outfield this season, while Lester enters her third year as a reserve catcher. Lester hit her first career homer last February against Georgetown. Newcomer McCoy was named all-state in Tennessee last year after batting .507 with nine homers and 63 RBIs.
The 2013 opening-day infield may have a completely different look from last year's, with three graduated seniors gone and junior shortstop Sammi Shivock recovering from off-season shoulder surgery.
Katie Han, a freshman from Lafayette, Ind., is slated to start the season at first base, taking over for three-year starter Kaylee West. Han was an Indiana All-State second team player in 2012, batting .418.
"I think Katie has high potential to be an all-conference player," Wetmore noted. "She's a 5-11 left-hander, has a great arm and a smooth swing, and should develop into a strong power hitter."
At second base, sophomore Megan Robinson is the favorite to start after two-time all-conference player Kelly Strickland's graduation. Robinson, who can also play the corner infield positions, played in 17 games last season, starting three times at designated player.
"Megan is really developing into a good second baseman," Wetmore said. "The key with her is that she has worked on her swing. She's got a nice inside-out swing, and I think she'll do a good job there."
With Shivock continuing to rehab from off-season shoulder surgery, junior Grace Nordan is expected to serve as starting shortstop. Nordan, who saw time in the infield, at designated player (DP) and at pitcher in 2012, had a strong fall season, belting four homers and driving in 10 runs.
"We need to have Grace's strong bat in the lineup," stated Wetmore. "She had a terrific fall series, and hits the ball extremely hard. She does a good job at shortstop and has a terrific arm."
Freshman Blair Lawrence, from Hampstead, N.C., who played shortstop and outfield in high school, will be looked at to handle third base this season. A five-time NCSCA All-State player, she is the NCSCA 2A career stolen bases leader.
"Because of her quickness and foot speed, Blair will do a great job," Wetmore noted. "She has a quick release that will help her at third base. Blair will be fun to watch cause havoc at the plate and on base."
In addition to the projected starters, sophomore Hanna Nichols (1B/3B), junior Marybeth Sciolino (2B), freshmen Holly Seiz (SS) and Kassidy McCoy (3B) will provide depth as reserves.
This season, Liberty's outfield will feature redshirt junior Jill Stephens in left field, junior Katie Zavodny in center field and sophomore Amber Donovan in right field. The Lady Flames will have to replace two senior starters in the outfield, 2012 Big South All-Conference player Meredith Crisante and Jenny Law.
Stephens made 34 starts last season, including 16 in left field and 15 at DP. She hit .243 with a .355 on base percentage, four homers and 14 RBIs, and tied for the team lead with 17 walks.
"Jill has good foot speed, she can bunt and she can slap. She can hit for average and hit for power," Wetmore said. "I really think that she has come into her own."
Despite missing the last month of the 2012 season with a broken hand, Zavodny was named to the all-conference second team. She led the Lady Flames with a .351 batting average, hitting .417 with eight runs scored in 10 Big South games played.
"Katie is our leading returning base stealer, base-runner and run producer," Wetmore added. "She has great foot speed and covers the outfield extremely well."
Donovan made an immediate impact as a freshman, leading the team with 10 doubles and five times hit by pitch. She started 35 times, including 23 at DP, and also made six starts at both catcher and left field.
"Amber has developed into a good right fielder," Wetmore noted. "Along with that, she's a powerful, powerful young lady at the plate. She crushes the ball."
Freshman Blair Lawrence, who is slotted to start on the infield, is also a backup outfielder, while sophomore Jamie Crisp and freshman Alexis Albert provide depth in the outfield.
Junior Sammi Shivock will serve as Liberty's first option at designated player until she's ready to play in the field. She hit .278 with six homers and led the team with 32 RBIs and 31 runs scored last season. In conference play alone, Shivock batted .367 with 16 RBIs.
Wetmore sees Shivock as a strong leader, on and off the field. Also an excellent fielding shortstop when healthy, Shivock has excelled at the plate and on the base paths for the Lady Flames.
Sophomore Hanna Nichols, junior Sydnei Lester and freshman Holly Seiz provide depth at the DP position, with all three showing potential as pinch hitters as well.
The Lady Flames will compete in a total of 55 games, including 22 out of the first 24 contests away from Lynchburg and the final seven games at home. The slate is highlighted by nine games against teams that advanced to the 2012 NCAA Division I Softball Championship.
"Once again, it should be a challenging schedule. It's all about preparation for conference play and the conference tournament. We're going to see some teams early on that are well-versed. I think that is great preparation for us."
Liberty opens the 2013 season at the Kennesaw State Classic in Woodstock, Ga., Feb. 16-17.
A trip to Greenville, N.C., Feb. 22-24, will see the Lady Flames face a pair of NCAA Tournament participants and 40-win teams from 2012, in Lehigh and Notre Dame.
The Lady Flames travel to Florida for six contests, beginning on March 13 at 2012 NCAA Tournament participant UCF. Liberty competes in the USF Spring Invitational from March 15-17, and will face the host Bulls, who finished the 2012 season ranked No. 8 after making the Women's College World Series.
The team also faces in-state ACC foes Virginia (Apr. 24) and Virginia Tech (Apr. 30) in mid-week doubleheaders.
Liberty opens the 24-game Big South Conference schedule with a road game at Radford, March 20. The team then hosts Presbyterian College in the conference home opener, March 22-23.
Liberty will compete in the 2013 Big South Softball Championship, hosted by Winthrop, from May 9-12. The Lady Flames won the 2011 Big South Softball Championship, the last time Winthrop hosted the conference tournament.