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2012 Liberty Softball Season Outlook
The Liberty softball team enters the 2012 campaign as the defending conference champion, a distinction which brings with it elevated expectations for this season.
The Lady Flames posted a 30-30 record in 2011, including an 11-7 mark in conference play, earning the second seed for the Big South Softball Championship. Liberty rallied to win its final four games at the championship, including a 3-1 win over No. 1 seeded Radford in the final to claim the conference crown. By doing so, the Lady Flames made their second trip to the NCAA Regional, competing in Knoxville, Tenn.
Paul Wetmore, the Lady Flames' 19th-year head coach, earned his 500th career victory on April 20, 2011, a win over Norfolk State. He will lead the squad in search of its second straight Big South title.
"We're excited about being returning champions. With that comes a target on our back," Wetmore said. "Other teams will be aiming at us. It was very special to win the championship last season. Our seniors had worked very hard, and we wanted to see them achieve that goal."
Liberty thrived offensively last season, leading the Big South in eight offensive categories. The Lady Flames paced the conference in batting average, runs scored, home runs and slugging percentage.
"I think that we have laid the foundation through the years, where we are a pretty strong hitting team," Wetmore said. "We hit 61 home runs last year, and our offense will continue to be a big part of what we do here."
This season's edition of the Liberty softball team features a strong mix of youth and experience. Five current seniors and seven sophomores all earned playing time during last year's championship run. The team will have 14 freshmen or sophomores in 2012, so younger players will be counted upon in key situations.
"We have a strong returning class. That gives us a sense of stability. They won in the Big South and know what it takes to win. They will help lead the younger players as they gain experience at this level."
The Lady Flames by Position
Liberty returns six starters from last year's batting order, including 2011 Big South Co-Player of the Year Kelly Strickland, all-conference first baseman Kaylee West, and Big South All-Tournament team members Meredith Crisante and Sammi Shivock.
Liberty will have a pair of new starting pitchers this year, following the departure of both starters from the 2011 season.
Sophomore Alyssa DiMartino will be called upon to fill a starting role in the circle, after posting a 3-3 record in 57 innings last season. She fashioned a 2.57 ERA in 30 relief innings.
"Alyssa DiMartino has all of the skills," Wetmore added. "She can be a very strong pitcher in the Big South. She's going to have to step in [to the postion], but I think she'll be up for the challenge."
Freshman Chandler Ball will enter the season as Liberty's second starting pitcher. Ball aided her prep team in qualifying for the Maryland state championship in 2008.
"Chandler Ball came in and did a very good job this fall," Wetmore said. "She has the skills and tools to give us a chance to win, and will be called upon to give us quality innings."
Sophomore Grace Nordan will serve as a relief pitcher. She pitched five scoreless innings last year, including combining in a no-hitter against Norfolk State.
A pair of first-team all-conference players, Keely McMillon and Ashley Bensinger, both played behind the plate for the Lady Flames last season. McMillon and Bensinger have since graduated, leaving the competition open at the catcher spot
Sophomore Sydnei Lester returns after playing in eight games last season, including one start at designated player. She recorded her first career hit during the regular-season finale at Coastal Carolina.
"Sydnei will have an opportunity to go out there and win the catching position," Wetmore noted. "Hitting is probably the strongest aspect of her game."
Amber Donovan joins the Lady Flames as the first Liberty softball player to hail from Connecticut during the NCAA Division I era. She was a two-time all-conference catcher in high school, batting over .430 each year.
"Amber Donovan can catch, and play a couple different positions that we can probably look at," Wetmore said. "We think that she's really going to help us with her bat."
Kelby Allen, a two-time all-state catcher from Amarillo, Texas, is also in competition for playing time. She helped her high school team to three appearances in the regional tournament, and was twice named district player of the year.
"Kelby Allen is a field general, is very vocal and can handle our pitching staff," Wetmore said. "She knows the game very well and is a very powerful hitter."
Three seniors return on the infield, in Kaylee West, Kelly Strickland and Bridgett Woods.
West will start at first base for the third year in a row. The senior earned Big South All-Conference second-team honors last season after leading the team with 11 doubles.
"Kaylee West is a left-handed power hitter for us. A captain at first base, she runs the infield and knows the game," Wetmore said. "She is a great player, and I think she is determined and wants to have a great senior year."
Strickland, the 2011 Big South Co-Player of the Year, holds down second base. An NFCA all-region player and Easton Fastpitch All-American last season, she led the Big South with 16 home runs and tied for the conference lead with 47 RBIs.
"Kelly Strickland is an All-American and a born hitter," Wetmore said. "She will hit, and I believe that she is going to carry the team just like she has in the past. She is overlooked at second base, but she is a very good fielder."
Sammi Shivock, a sophomore, started 59 games at shortstop and finished well by being named to the Big South All-Tournament team. Shivock hit nine home runs, setting a freshman record for Liberty softball.
"Sammi Shivock is destined to be an all-conference player," Wetmore added. "She is in the dirt all the time. She can hit the ball with authority. She gets key hits for us, and she is a great shortstop with a huge arm."
Woods has started 60 times during her career, and made 27 starts at third base last season. She will look to provide leadership at the hot corner this season, after splitting time with Bensinger at third in 2011.
"Bridgett Woods is a senior, coming in as a captain. She had seen what it takes to win a championship," Wetmore said. "Bridgett plays a terrific third base, but she has to work on her hitting to maintain her edge."
Providing depth in the infield are: sophomores Grace Nordan and Marybeth Sciolino and freshmen Hanna Nichols and Megan Robinson.
Seniors Meredith Crisante and Jenny Law will play the corner outfield positions, while sophomore Katie Zavodny will take over for graduated senior Amber DePasquale in center field, when the year opens for the Lady Flames.
Crisante, an all-conference outfielder in 2010, was named to the Big South All-Tournament team last year. Combining power and speed, she posted nine home runs and 32 RBIs, in addition to eight stolen bases last season.
"Meredith, as a senior, is a great outfielder with a great arm," Wetmore said. "She is the strongest player on the team. She can not only hit for power, she can bunt and runs the bases extremely well."
Zavodny split time between designated player and center field last season, hitting .288 with 32 runs scored. She placed second in the Big South with 26 stolen bases, the third-most steals in a single season in program history.
"Katie Zavodny is a typical center fielder, with very good range," Wetmore added. "She can go get anything and has a very strong arm. She has very deceiving footspeed. She led our team in stolen bases last year."
Law started all 60 games in right field last season, posting a .279 average with 32 RBIs. She tied for the team lead with 17 multiple-hit games, paced the team with four outfield assists, and hit a program-record-tying four sacrifice flies.
"Jenny Law, in her fourth year for us, is a clutch hitter," Wetmore said. "She should be looked at as an all-conference outfielder, because she knows the game, positions herself, gets a good jump and has a very strong arm."
Redshirt sophomore Jill Stephens, along with freshmen Jamie Crisp and Emiy DeYmaz, will serve as backups in the outfield.
Grace Nordan appears to be the early candidate to be the designated player. A versatile competitor, Nordan hit a home run in her first career at bat as a freshman and batted 4-for-14 in 2011.
"We were thrilled to see how Grace Nordan has started to swing the bat with authority," Wetmore said. "She is a true utility player, as she can play many positions, and hits for average and power."
Jill Stephens could also be the designated player. The redshirt sophomore batted .266 in 41 appearances last season, scoring seven runs and driving in six. In 30 plate appearances as a pinch hitter, she hit .357 with a .375 on base percentage.
"Jill Stephens has battled injuries ever since she got here," Wetmore said. "She is healthy now, and had a good fall. She is a good left-handed hitter, who can bunt, slap and swing away."
Amber Donovan and Hanna Nichols may see time at designated player as well.
The 2012 slate features 56 contests, including six games against teams that competed in the 2011 NCAA Tournament. The Lady Flames will play a pair of teams, No. 4 Baylor and No. 14 Texas A&M, that finished last season ranked in the NCAA Division I Top 25.
"Once again, we've been known to take on a pretty challenging non-conference schedule. I feel that is essential for us to be ready for the Big South," Wetmore said. "Big South softball, from top to bottom, has always been good and has gotten better with the addition of Campbell."
Liberty opens the season on Feb. 10 at the Elon Invitational against the host Phoenix, a 30-24 team in 2011.
The Lady Flames then play at the USC Upstate Tournament Feb. 24-25. USC Upstate went 42-13 last season.
The 2012 home opener will take place on March 6, against East Tennessee State.
Liberty then takes an extended trip to Texas, which starts with the Aggie Invitational. The Lady Flames face Texas A&M, which enters the season ranked No. 17 in the preseason NFCA national poll, along with 2011 NCAA tournament qualifier North Dakota State and Monmouth.
The Texas trip also takes the Lady Flames to Texas State, another NCAA tournament team, March 13, and ends in Waco against No. 7 Baylor on March 16.
Other notable non-conference games include contests against tough in-state opponents Virginia, Longwood and Virginia Tech.
A home game against Radford on March 21 opens the 21-game Big South schedule, in a rematch of the 2011 Big South Championship final. Liberty closes the league schedule with a series against conference newcomer Campbell, April 27-28.
Liberty will look to defend its 2011 Big South title at the 2012 Big South Softball Championship. The conference tournament will take place May 10-12 and will be hosted by Radford.