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Momentum Moves Lady Flames into 2010

January 29, 2010  Lynchburg, Va.  RSS
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Senior J'nae Jefferson and the Lady Flames are gearing up for the 2010 season.

Senior J'nae Jefferson and the Lady Flames are gearing up for the 2010 season.

Coming off their second consecutive runner-up finish in the Big South Championship, the Lady Flames will look to ride the momentum of a successful 2009 campaign as the 2010 season gets underway.

After starting out slowly in 2009, the Lady Flames finished strong in conference play, winning six of their last seven Big South regular season contests before making a run in the postseason tournament.

Head Coach Paul Wetmore, returning for his 17th season, says this year's squad is more confident and more experienced, despite only having one senior team member.

"We had a great finish last year, and it was one we really anticipated and we worked for," Wetmore said. "In the game of softball, confidence is so important. I think the returners really saw that we have the capability to win, and that's going to be a big asset to us."

As far as this season goes, Wetmore says he is cautiously optimistic. He expects a lot from the 2010 Lady Flames, but also acknowledges the progressive strength of the Big South Conference.

The Lady Flames by Position
After losing first basemen Beth Bennett and pitcher Sarah Ellis to graduation, the Lady Flames return seven position starters, including two all-conference honorees (pitcher Tiffani Smith and infielder Kelly Strickland).

Replacing Bennett and Ellis, key players for the last four years, is no easy task. "We'll definitely miss Sarah's experience on our pitching staff," Wetmore said. "But I think Tiffani is so well experienced now that she can step into that role."

"Beth is a hard one to replace," he continued. "Not only was she a solid leader, but she was also a big-time hitter, and people are going to have to step up. I don't think we're going to have one person who will fill those shoes; instead, it's going to have to be three or four people."

Pitching
Wetmore says this year's pitching staff has much more depth than in recent years. Smith, a junior, returns as the No. 1 pitcher for the Lady Flames, and will be joined by newcomers Katie Warrington and Katrina Johnson, as well as Hope Joseph.

Smith, who boasted the best ERA in the Big South last year (2.21), set a new school record with 16 strikeouts in a 3-1 win over Presbyterian on April 24, 2009. "Tiffani is somebody who we'll be looking to throw up to 50 percent of our innings," Wetmore said. "She's going to have to be very consistent."

Wetmore also has high hopes for the newcomers in the circle.

"We've got two freshmen pitchers, and they both had a very good fall," Wetmore said. "I think we're going to see our pitching staff become very solid, as the new girls grow and gain more experience."

Catcher
Junior Keely McMillon will be the second-year starter behind the plate, after receiving a 2009 Big South All-Tournament Team honor.
"Keely continues to be a solid catcher and she has done an excellent job for us," Wetmore said.

Backing up McMillon will be sophomore Jenny Law, who saw playing time last year in the outfield and as the designated hitter. Last year's number one backup, Ashley Bensinger, suffered a hand injury in the offseason, and Wetmore says her contribution to this year's team will be as a pinch hitter.

Infield
The only loss in the infield was Bennett, who in 2009 led the Lady Flames in nine statistical categories, including batting average (.294), RBIs (34), home runs (11) and walks (28). Her 11 home runs also ranked second in the Big South, and her 48 total hits ranked second for Liberty. Wetmore will look to sophomore Kaylee West, who saw playing time in right field last year, to fill Bennett's slot in the infield.

"We knew when Kaylee came in that she was an excellent first baseman, and she will do a terrific job defensively," Wetmore said. "She really worked on her hitting this fall, and I think she can hit in that 4-5-6 slot on a regular basis. She should drive in runs for us this year."

Returning at second base is junior Cassie Hendrix, who Wetmore calls a solid, defensive infielder. "Cassie is also a threat at the plate with her speed," Wetmore added. "She can mix it up with bunts, slaps and switch-hitting."

Backing up Hendrix is newcomer Lauren Trentham, who Wetmore says will be a big help to the team hitting off the bench.

Strickland, a 2009 all-conference honoree and a member of the 2009 Big South All-Tournament team, is back in the starting lineup at shortstop. Strickland enjoyed a successful freshman campaign, leading the Lady Flames with a .889 slugging percentage in conference play and ranking second on the squad with eight home runs and 25 RBIs.

Sophomore Bridgett Woods, a walk-on last year, is the backup at shortstop. "Bridgett is probably the most improved player on our team," commented Wetmore. "She's very enthusiastic, a great kid and a good team player. She's a very important part of our team because she's so positive." Wetmore said Woods may also come off the bench to hit at times.

Rounding out the infield at third base will be the lone senior, J'nae Jefferson. "She's solid, and she does a great job for us at third," Wetmore said. "She's fearless, and she gets up there and swings the bat. She will probably hit in the No. 3 spot in the lineup."
Backing up Jefferson will be sophomore Danielle Howard, the heir apparent at that position. "We will have both J'nae and Danielle in the lineup. At this point, it looks like Danielle will be in the lineup in left field."

Outfield
Nex to Howard in left field, junior Amber DePasquale will be in center field. "There's no question that Amber will be our center fielder," Wetmore said. "She's got good hustle, a great arm, and good coverage out there."

Right field is still a toss-up, with Law, Jenna Eatmon and newcomer Jill Stephens vowing for the starting position. Wetmore expects Law to hit in the leadoff spot regardless of her defensive role.

"Jenny Law had a really good fall," Wetmore said. "She hit really well and worked on her outfield skills. She really loves the game and she plays hard. She's going to find a way to get on base and get around to score."
Wetmore also notes how much Eatmon has improved.

"Jenna has done a good job out there," Wetmore said. "She's a good defensive outfielder and she's also worked a lot on her hitting." Eatmon was the starting right fielder in all six games of last year's postseason tournament, and hit home runs in two of those tournament contests.

And then, there's Stephens, who is still recovering from an offseason injury. "Jill is the wild card," Wetmore said. "She's got good foot speed, she can bunt, she can slap and she can hit with power. She's the future of our outfield."
Sophomore Meredith Baisden is also fighting for a spot in the outfield. "She's really improved," Wetmore said. "By far, she's physically the strongest kid on our team. She hits the ball harder than anybody."

Jefferson, Hendrix and Smith will serve as this year's team captains. "I think the team chemistry is going to be very good this year," commented Wetmore. "It's always a challenge because we spend so much time together, but the new girls have melted right into the group."

2010 Schedule
The Lady Flames are once again prepared to tackle a very challenging schedule.
Liberty kicks off the 2010 season on Feb. 14, competing in the UNC Charlotte Tournament in Charlotte, N.C.

After appearances in the USC Upstate Campus Suites Spartan Classic in Spartanburg, S.C., Feb. 19-21, and the Georgia Tech Buzz Classic in Woodstock, Ga., March 5-7, Liberty will travel to Tuscaloosa, Ala. and Cookeville, Tenn. The Lady Flames will have for single games against 2009 national runner-up Alabama and Tennessee Tech, March 9-11, before wrapping up early non-conference play at the University of Tennessee Spring Classic in Knoxville, Tenn., March 12-14.
"Going down to the Buzz Classic is a great opportunity for us, and we will see quality teams there," Wetmore said, noting that he's tried to enter the tournament for the last 10 years.

Liberty opens conference play on March 18 with a doubleheader at Radford, the 2009 Big South regular season and tournament champion.

The first home game of the season is scheduled as a single game on March 23, as the Lady Flames host the Highlanders for the final game of the series.

After a non-conference doubleheader at Virginia on March 24, the Lady Flames move into April by hosting Big South opponent Winthrop in a three-game series April 2-3 and the Spartans of UNC Greensboro for a doubleheader on April 7. On April 9-10, Liberty travels to Charleston, S.C., for a three-game conference series against Charleston Southern.

After hosting James Madison (April 14), Gardner-Webb (April 16-17) and George Washington (April 18), the Lady Flames hit the road once again for games against Norfolk State and Hampton before returning home to host Longwood on April 24. Liberty then travels to Blacksburg, Va., to take on Virginia Tech in a doubleheader on April 28 before heading to Clinton, S.C. to face the Blue Hose of Presbyterian in a three-game series April 30-May 1. The Lady Flames wrap up the regular season hosting Coastal Carolina in a three-game conference series in Lynchburg.

The 2010 Big South Conference Softball Championship will be held in Conway, S.C. May 13-15, followed by the NCAA Regionals May 21-22.

"The Big South is going to be a major challenge," Wetmore said. "But we've got a wealth of people who have played a lot of games as underclassmen, and I think that will pay dividends. I'm really excited to get going."