Senior Beth Bennett and the Lady Flames open the 2009 season Friday in the Cathedral City Kick Off in Palm Springs, Calif.
Coming off of a runner-up finish in the 2008 Big South Championship, the Liberty softball team enters the 2009 season with specific goals in mind. First, the Lady Flames aim to finish first in the Big South during the regular season to set up a top seed in the postseason conference championship. A tournament title would ensure a NCAA Tournament appearance. Wetmore wants his team to take care of business so that his two seniors, Beth Bennett and Sarah Ellis, can experience the excitement of competing at the coveted event. "Beth and Sarah deserve the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament," Wetmore said. "This is the last go-around for those two, and we really want to see them have that opportunity. It's a lifetime dream for these kids." Wetmore, along with assistant coaches Tuesday Van Engen and Joanna Hardin, says this year's squad is very well-balanced. Instead of sitting back and waiting for the long ball, Wetmore expects the Lady Flames to be more consistent at the plate in 2009. He also says this year's team has more speed and a more solid defense than in years past. After falling to Winthrop in the final of the conference championship last year, Wetmore said the Lady Flames are anxious to go head-to-head with the Eagles in 2009. "We're ready for them," Wetmore said. "We are looking forward to meeting them this year with a different look on our team." Winthrop was ranked No. 1 in the Big South preseason poll, followed by Radford, Liberty, Coastal Carolina, Gardner-Webb, Charleston Southern and Presbyterian. But before the Lady Flames even begin conference play, they will see plenty of top-level competition, mostly during road trips to California and Florida. Wetmore says competing against top-tier teams should provide valuable experience for the young Liberty squad, and help the players build confidence in their abilities. "At this level, confidence is such a big part of what you do out on the field," Wetmore said. "And you don't gain confidence until you accomplish something." The Lady Flames by Position Pitching The Lady Flames will depend on returners Sarah Ellis and Tiffani Smith inside the circle, and also look to freshmen Allyson Hudson and Brittany Keeney for relief efforts. Smith, a sophomore, struggled with shin splints last year. But now, the right-hander has found herself in the No. 1 pitching slot. "She came back in much better shape and she's ready to go," Wetmore said. Smith finished 2008 with a record of 7-14, making 31 appearances and starting 20 games for Liberty. Wetmore said he is looking for Ellis, a right-hander who ranks No. 2 in Liberty history with eight saves in her career, to have a big year and be more consistent. Ellis led the Lady Flames last year, pitching 203.1 innings, throwing 19 complete games and hurling three shutouts. For relief, Wetmore will look to freshmen Hudson and Keeney. "It is yet to be determined how they're going to help us," Wetmore commented, "but one will be middle relief, and the other spot relief." Catcher Sophomore Keely McMillon returns behind the plate for the Lady Flames after starting 37 games at catcher last season. She also proved to be a force offensively, and ranking fourth on the team with seven doubles and 15 RBIs. Backing up McMillon will be transfer Ashley Bensinger, who has one season of college softball under her belt after competing in 2008 at Cecil College in North East, Md. "We really feel like Ashley will work in tandem with Keely," Wetmore remarked. "We think she'll help us out a lot behind the plate and give Keely some time off." Wetmore also looks for Bensinger to serve as an effective designated player. "She's a run-producer," Wetmore said of her batting skills.
Infield At the corners, Beth Bennett will return to first base, and junior J'nae Jefferson will once again man third. Bennett, who has started all 187 games since she joined the program, led last year's squad with a team-best batting average (.328) and hits (60). "We're going to need power numbers out of Beth Bennett this year," Wetmore said. Jefferson started all 61 games for Liberty in 2008, 42 coming at third base. She also saw time at shortstop and second base, and ranked fifth on the team with a .237 batting average. "J'nae will do another good job," Wetmore said. "She's a very vocal field leader, and a very effective hitter." Joining Bennett and Jefferson will be sophomore Cassie Hendrix back at second base, who was slightly hindered last year following a back operation. Wetmore expects Hendrix to have more of an impact on this year's team. The lone freshman slated to start in the infield will be Kelly Strickland at shortstop. "We think Kelly is going to be a tremendous hitter for us," Wetmore said. "She's probably going to bat in the No. 3 spot. We expect her to hit the long ball." Outfield After losing standout Shannon McKain to graduation, Wetmore will look to returner Amber DePasquale to head up the outfield in the center field position. He also expects her to swing a solid bat, as she tied for first on the team last year with two triples, and finished fifth with five doubles. Joining DePasquale will be freshman Danielle Howard in left field. "We really think she has the opportunity to help us," Wetmore said. A starter for right field is still up in the air, with three players vying for the starting spot: sophomore Jenna Eatmon, and freshmen Meredith Baisden and Kaylee West. Wetmore will also look to freshman Bridgett Woods to serve as a backup at shortstop, and he has appointed junior Jennifer Pittman as a pinch runner. Jenny Law, another newcomer, will see outfield playing time and may serve as a backup catcher and a designated player. The Schedule No one can argue that the 2009 Liberty schedule is challenging. Liberty kicks off the season Feb. 6 in Palm Springs, Calif., competing in the Cathedral City Kickoff. During the tournament, the Lady Flames will face three teams ranked in the Top 25 in preseason national polls, two of which are past national champions (Fresno State and California). Despite the talent they're up against, Wetmore has faith in his team. "We're going out there fully expecting to do well," Wetmore said. Following a two-week break, the Lady Flames will be back in action on the road with a doubleheader against No. 13 Tennessee. The last weekend in February, Liberty will compete in the Seahawk Classic in Wilmington, N.C., with games scheduled against UNC Wilmington and Delaware State. During the first week in March, Liberty will take a 10-day road trip to Florida. This trip will feature games against Florida State, Middle Tennessee State and Troy during the FSU Invitational in Tallahassee March 7-8. After games against Jacksonville and Stetson on March 9 and 10, the Lady Flames will travel to Boca Raton, where they are slated to compete in the FAU Parents' Weekend Tournament. They will square off against Florida Atlantic, Rutgers, Bethune-Cookman, Purdue and last year's No. 2 ranked team, Texas A&M. "The Florida trip will be a great opportunity for us to see different venues and be on the road together," Wetmore said. "After that, we'll have half the season under our belt. So, we'll have a lot of playing experience against top-level teams, and hopefully we'll see any weaknesses and be able to address them before we get to conference play." The Lady Flames open their home schedule March 19 with a doubleheader against Norfolk State, followed by a doubleheader against Hampton on March 24. Conference play begins when the Lady Flames travel to Rock Hill to take on Winthrop in a doubleheader March 28, followed by a single game on March 29. The month of April will begin with a trip to Charlottesville to square off against Virginia, followed by the remainder of the Big South opponents. The Lady Flames will host Charleston Southern (April 3-4), before heading to Boiling Springs, N.C., to take on conference newcomer Gardner-Webb (April 10-11). Next is a split-game series with Radford (April 21-22) followed by a home series against Presbyterian (April 24-25). Liberty will also visit James Madison on April 8 and host No. 25 Virginia Tech in a doubleheader on April 15. The Lady Flames will round out the month with a trip to UNC Greensboro to take on the Spartans April 29. In May, Liberty will wrap up the regular season with a road trip to Coastal Carolina for the final conference matchups of the year (May 1-2). The Big South Championship is scheduled for May 7-10 at Radford, and the NCAA Softball Regionals will take place May 15-17.
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