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2011 Liberty Softball Season Outlook
Coming off a historic 2010 season, the 2011 Liberty Lady Flames softball team looks to achieve greatness this spring.
Last season, the Lady Flames accomplished several feats that rank among the best in program history. After establishing the longest winning streak in school history at 12 games, the Lady Flames went on to finish the season with 39 wins, which is the third-most wins ever recorded by the softball program.
Liberty also performed well in Big South Conference play, posting a 13-5 record against conference opponents, which is the most league wins in a single season in program history. In addition, the team went a perfect 10-0 in conference play at Liberty Softball Field for the only the second time in school history.
After finishing second behind conference champion Radford in the regular season, the Lady Flames fell to Winthrop in the finals of the consolation bracket at the Big South Championship, good for a third-place finish.
"We had a great year last year," commented head coach Paul Wetmore, entering his 18th year at the helm of the program. "At 39-18, we had a very successful season. We would have loved to win the conference, but we were happy with the amount of growth we saw in our team."
The Lady Flames by Position
After losing an all-conference performer in senior third baseman J'nae Jefferson, the Lady Flames return six position starters, including all-conference honoree Meredith Crisante. In addition, two award-winning starting pitchers return: senior Tiffani Smith and sophomore Kat Johnson.
Wetmore expects this year's pitching staff to be one of the best on record for Liberty, as both Big South Pitcher of the Year Smith and Big South Co-Freshman of the Year Johnson are back. With the addition of freshman right-hander Alyssa DiMartino, Wetmore believes the staff has the depth it needs to contend for a conference title.
Smith, the first Lady Flame in history to earn Big South Pitcher of the Year honors, is already listed among the career bests at Liberty. After leading the Big South with 211 strikeouts last year, she now has amassed 478 career strikeouts, ranking second behind Sarah Swor, who recorded 489 K's from 2004 to 2007. Smith is also tied for third in Liberty history with seven career saves. Also, she was named to the all-region team in 2010, becoming the fifth player in program history named to that list, and was a three-time Big South Pitcher of the Week last season. The standout also became the third 20-game winner in Liberty single-season history with a 20-7 record.
Johnson, who earned a Big South Pitcher of the Week honor for the final week of regular-season play, ranked second in the Big South (behind Smith) with a .228 opponent batting average to go along with an 11-4 record.
"We feel great about the pitching staff," Wetmore said. "Tiffani and Kat are even better than they were, and they're ready to go."
DiMartino should also see ample playing time, as Wetmore will look to her for relief. "Alyssa has the opportunity to grow this year," he said. "She can learn and get better for the future."
Liberty is three-deep behind the plate this year, with senior Ashley Bensinger expected to fill the starting role. Bensinger started 40 games at catcher in 2010, leading the team with a .436 on-base percentage, while ranking third in runs (29) and fourth in doubles (nine). "Benny will be our No. 1 catcher with to her ability to contribute as a key hitter," Wetmore said.
Backing up Bensinger will be senior Keely McMillon, who appeared in 28 contests last season. She started 17 games at catcher, appearing as a pinch hitter on the other occasions.
"Keely does a great job defensively," commented Wetmore. "She has the potential to be a great catcher in her senior season. We'll also look to her to potentially fill the designated player position."
Finally, newcomer Sydnei Lester rounds out the catching staff. "She did a great job in the fall, and had a huge home run against Penn State," commented Wetmore. "Once she gets some more experience, she'll settle in and get some playing time as catcher and DP."
The significant loss in the infield will be Jefferson, who led the 2010 squad in hits (62) and runs scored (50). Wetmore will look to junior Bridgett Woods to fill that slot at third base. Woods, a walk-on as a freshman in 2009, has seen playing time at both third and shortstop over the past two seasons.
"Bridgett has really shown her ability and improved greatly during her sophomore year," Wetmore said. "She proved herself as the right person to take over for J'nae Jefferson."
Power-hitter Kelly Strickland will return as a third-year starter at shortstop. She led the Big South with 56 RBIS, and tied for second in the conference with 15 home runs. "She had a terrific year last year, and threatened the school RBI record," Wetmore said. "She also had a great year defensively last year, so we're expecting a lot from her."
The lone newcomer holding down the fort in the infield will be Sammi Shivock, a freshman taking on the starting second baseman role. "Sammi is someone who plays hard each and every day," commented Wetmore. "We foresee her being an impact player this year, someone who will really be noticed in the Big South."
Finally, junior Kaylee West will resume her role as the starting first baseman after a successful 2010 season, when she was named to the VaSID all-state first team after batting .307 with 12 doubles, five home runs and 35 RBIs. "Kaylee is a great defensive first-baseman," Wetmore said. "She continues to work on her hitting, and we think she'll provide a lot of power for us."
Three veterans will make up the Liberty outfield, with Crisante in left, Amber DePasquale in center and Jenny Law in right.
Crisante (formerly Baisden) comes back after a successful 2010 season, as she received the first accolade of her career with an all-conference second team honor. The newlywed, known for her foot speed, led the team and tied for fifth in the conference with 14 stolen bases. "Meredith is fast in the outfield and she has a great arm," stated Wetmore. "She's also a real threat on the bases with stealing and scoring."
Senior DePasquale returns to center field as the starter for the third consecutive season after posting career numbers in batting average and hits. "Amber is one of the best defensive players in the Big South," noted Wetmore. "We're looking for her to be a leader in the outfield."
Law, who settled into the right field position last season, returns as the starter after ranking second on the squad with 11 doubles. "Jenny's got a great arm, but she's also our No. 1 or No. 2 hitter," Wetmore said. "She can bunt, she can slap and she can step up and hit with authority."
The DP position is still up for grabs, with several returners and newcomers vying for the role. Wetmore calls freshman Katie Zavodny his No. 4 outfielder, and expects her to contribute at the plate as well. A wild card is redshirt freshman Jill Stephens, who sat out last season with an injury. After gaining some experience in the fall, Wetmore commends her talent and expects her to contribute in 2011.
Christina Morice, Grace Nordan and Marybeth Sciolino will also have the opportunity to help the team, whether that is by pinch hitting or serving as clutch baserunners.
As in past seasons, Wetmore wants to prepare his team for Big South competition as best he can, and that includes facing off against top teams from all over the country.
The Lady Flames will kick off the 2011 campaign with an appearance in the College of Charleston Tournament, Feb. 25-27, facing the host Cougars, Iowa State, Marist, Drexel and Notre Dame. The matchup against the Fighting Irish, who ranked No. 35 last year, is a special one to Wetmore. "Dr. Falwell's dream was always to compete against Notre Dame," he noted. "It's just a great opportunity for this program to play them."
Next comes a trip north for a tournament appearance in Baltimore, Md., on the campus of UMBC. Liberty will line up against Siena, Mount St. Mary's, Princeton and Iona, March 4-6.
The Lady Flames will next travel to Knoxville, Tenn., on March 8, for a single game against Tennessee (ranked No. 12 last year), before heading south for the annual spring break trip.
Liberty will first appear in the Stetson Tournament March 11-13, along with Jackson State, Iowa and the host Hatters. Single games follow on March 16 and 17 against UCF and past national champion Texas A&M, respectively.
The Lady Flames will then conclude regular-season tournament play at the USF event in Tampa, Fla., March 18-20, facing North Florida, Long Island, UT Chattanooga, Buffalo and Texas Tech.
"Last year our early-season schedule made a big impact," Wetmore said. "We were well-prepared for conference competition because we saw three Top 25 teams."
Big South play begins on March 23, when the Lady Flames travel to Radford, Va. to take on the 2009 and 2010 Big South Champion Highlanders for a single game. After a doubleheader against Cornell for the season's home opener on March 24, the Lady Flames will welcome Radford for a doubleheader at Liberty Softball Field on March 26 to round out the three-game series.
The Lady Flames hope to relive last year's home performance against the Highlanders, when the home team dominated Radford, 9-1.
Next is a home doubleheader against Virginia on March 30, followed by a road trip to Rock Hill, S.C., for a three-game series against the Winthrop Eagles on April 2 and 3.
A road doubleheader against non-conference opponent UNC Greensboro is scheduled for April 6, after which the Lady Flames return home to host the Charleston Southern Buccaneers in a three-game series April 8 and 9.
Another non-conference doubleheader follows, as Liberty travels to Harrisonburg, Va., to face 2010 CAA champion James Madison on April 15. Then Big South play resumes as the Lady Flames continue to Boiling Springs, N.C., for a series against Gardner-Webb on April 15 and 16.
Four straight non-conference doubleheaders follow, as Liberty hosts Hampton and Norfolk State on April 19 and 20, before making the quick trip to Longwood, Va., to face the Lancers on April 23. The Lady Flames conclude non-conference play on April 27 by hosting Virginia Tech.
In the final home series of the year, Liberty welcomes Presbyterian College for a three-game series on April 30 and May 1, with Senior Day scheduled for the second day. Finally, Liberty will wrap up the 2011 regular season with a road trip to Conway, S.C., for a series with Coastal Carolina.
The 2011 Big South Championship is slated for May 12-14 in Rock Hill, S.C.
"We have great team chemistry and a wealth of experience this season," Wetmore said. "Also, the influx of talented freshmen will give us the depth that we need to compete for a championship.
"Nobody was satisfied with where we ended last year. We're ready to get going."