Monday, February 1, 2010

The seven seniors on the 2010 edition of the North Greenville University softball team endured the heartache of the untimely passing of Buster Sturke in 2007, played under an interim coach in 2008, rebounded under the leadership of Coach Jan McDonald in 2009, and now have the freshness and positive spirit of new head coach Sarah Hall as they conclude their careers. They’ve been through a lot, but have hung together and now have set their sights on finishing their memorable college careers with a breakout season.

North Greenville, 18-18 a year ago when NGU Athletic Director Jan McDonald stepped in on an interim basis, was one run away from advancing to the National Christian Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCCAA) national championship last spring.  The Crusaders had the winning run on third base in the 8th inning against Chowan (NC), but could not push it across.
 That disappointment, along with the hiring of Hall, has reenergized the veterans and newcomers on the NGU squad.  The Crusaders lost only two players from last season, and return eight starters and the entire pitching staff for 2010.  Additionally, Hall has brought in a banner recruiting class that should begin the program’s transition to the next level.
“We have three primary goals this season,” Hall stated excitedly.  “First, we want to put God first. We want to make sure we represent Him in everything we do.  Second, we want to win the NCCAA South Regionals and advance to the national tournament.  We haven’t done that in awhile, and I’d love to do it in my first season.  And third, we want to have a .400 batting average as a team.  Those are very realistic goals and the players will work extremely hard to achieve them.”
“Our staff has very high expectations this season,” Hall noted.   “If we don’t set bar high, then why are we doing what we’re doing?   Coach McDonald set a high standard last season.  The players are used to the coaches working them hard and they are responding to what we’ve put in front of them.  This team has gone through a lot the last three years, and they still talk about Coach (Buster) Sturke (Sturke passed away unexpectedly in the fall of 2007).  The seven seniors still hurt.  But, they have hung together and are big leaders for us.”

“The main objective for our teams is to make sure we represent Christ with excellence; we’re out there for Him, so we must do everything very well.   Other goals for us, since we’re not in a conference, would be to get a bid to the NCAA tournament.  That’s a difficult goal, but we’d like to be able to get in to that tournament.  Also, we don’t want to be shutout this year.  We’re working on our small game; the bunt and how to field that as well.   One of the problems this team has had in the past is fielding the ball and throwing it all over the place.   We must defend against that very well.  We’ve also got to be ready to perform in pressure situations.” 

“We could have a breakout season if we just believe in ourselves,” Hall added.   It’s such a mental game, so we’ve got to believe we can.  We’ve got to rely on each other, but the hardest thing our players must accept is that there are 21 players, but only nine play.   I hope they keep pushing each other.   We have a lot of people back and everyone has a job; we all have a role.  My job is to let them all know they are important and do have a specific responsibility.  Every player on our roster has to be ready to step in at any time.  Some are better at certain jobs, and they have to be ready when we need them to come in to bunt, or hit or pitch an inning.”

Hall is inheriting a team where the cupboard is certainly not bare.  As Hall says it, “pitching in softball is huge.”  The Crusaders have both starting pitchers returning and have three new pitchers coming in this year.   Kristyn Smith (JR 11-8, 128 IP, 145 K’s) and Taylor Roof (SO 7-9, 100 IP, 90 K’s) were the heart of last season’s squad and both are prepared for a big year.  “Kristyn could play at any Division I school, and has a fastball in the 60’s,” Hall said.  “Taylor is very tall and has a lot of leg kick and power in her pitches.  I expect both of them to have big seasons.” 

Other pitchers to watch for include left handed Laura Hopper (FR Ellenboro, NC), Courtney Campbell (FR Gaffney, SC), and Kimberly Robertson (FR Walterboro, NC). 

North Greenville has a void to fill at catcher with the departure of four year starter Lindsay Eargle.   However, Hall plans to move Allison Bailey (SR Jefferson, SC) into that vital spot.  “Our catchers are the ones that are the center of our defense,” she said.  “They call the shots and are like the quarterback of the team.  They are the voice of the team.  Bailey played first base last season, but will be called upon to step into this vital position.  She hit .294 last year with five doubles and two home runs and a team high 13 RBI’s.  Rachel Holeman (FR Mauldin, SC) will back her up at catcher.

With Bailey moving behind the plate, first base is a spot several players will compete for the starting nod.  Bailey may play some first base as well, but Sarah Griffin (SO Gaffney, SC) and Taylor Nunn (Danville, VA) will also play there.   Lauren Vick (SO Campobello, SC) is the favorite to take over at second base for NGU.  She played in 32 of the Crusaders’ 36 games last season.  Freshman Kansas Wofford (Landrum, SC) and returnee Tia LaFrieniere (SR Brookline, NH) is a super backup at any position in the infield.

The incumbent at shortstop is senior Hope Brewer (Liberty, SC).  She started 35 of 36 games last season and hit .220 with two home runs.  She will anchor the center infield as she has done for several seasons.   Campbell, Vick, or Wofford could also play shortstop if Coach Hall chooses to vary her lineup.

Third base will be a true battle for playing time this year.  Karli Taylor (SO Taylors, SC) is the returnee at the hot corner, and is the team’s top returning hitter at .404 with five doubles and two home runs.   Taylor may also see time at first base because of her hot bat.  Other potentials on the scorecard at third include Krysta Laird (SR Columbia, SC), who started 20 games last year and hit .288.   Robertson and LaFreniere may also see time at third. 

The North Greenville outfield will begin with Jessica Turner (SR Gaffney, SC) who started 33 games in left last season.  She hit .280 with two doubles and nine RBI’s.  Campbell, Kasey Templeton (JR Clinton, SC) will also battle it out to see the field.  Lauren Rickus (FR Summerville, SC) will also try out at left field and spots in the infield.    Center may be where Marielena Santos (FR Goose Creek, SC) begins her NGU career.  She will go head to head with Shealy Broome (SR Ridgeway, SC) and Jessica Turner (SR Gaffney, SC) for the job.  Broome, Hopper, Rickus and Turner are all possibilities to start in rightfield. 

The Crusaders will open Hall’s first season Tuesday, Feb. 16 playing at Carson Newman.  The first home game for NGU will be Thursday, Feb. 18 against Lees-McRae at 2:00 p.m.  “We’ve got 11 home games and 11 away games this year and we’ll also play in the Mid South Classic in Spartanburg March 5-6.  We’ll see a lot of great competition and we’re playing almost every team in the South Atlantic Conference, so we’ve got a big chance to see where we stand against some great teams.”

“We are three deep at all positions and this will keep everybody working very hard because everyone knows that somebody will beat them out if they don’t,” Hall said.  “We need people to step up and do a job.  Right now, I don’t know who my starting nine are.  We will win and lose as a team, but eventually I have to put them on the field.  They have to perform.  I can only do so much to get them ready, but after that, they’re on their own.” 

Asked about coaching her first ever intercollegiate game, Hall replied, “of course I’m nervous, but I’m praying for our team and that God prepares us the right way for the season.  I hope to be able to step back and see things from the big picture perspective later, but right now, we’ve just got to go out and try to help this program move to the next level.”