The 2013 season was a breakthrough year for the Badger softball program as Spring Hill College advanced to the NAIA National Softball Championship Final Site in Columbus, Ga., before bowing to Concordia (Calif.) in an 8-3 decision in the National Championship Game. This season, head coach Alison Sellers-Cook is confident that her team can make a similar run in the national post-season. "One of the things our team has to understand is that we are the hunted now and not the hunters," she says. "The bulls-eye has been put on our backs and I'm not quite sure that we fully understand how different this year will be for us."
On defense, the Badgers welcome back sophomore NAIA 1st team All-America and Southern States Athletic Conference (SSAC) Pitcher of the Year Caroline Sagrera (39-11) of Baton Rouge, La., back into the pitching circle after a freshman campaign where she set numerous Spring Hill records and led all of collegiate softball with 482 strikeouts. "Caroline is a tremendous weapon," Cook says. "But more importantly, we should be able to give her a little more rest this year with the development of Sarah Bolotte's pitching." A sophomore from Marrero, La., Bolotte (2-0) appeared in six late-season games in 2013 including a complete-game shutout while earning Cook's confidence to use her as needed. "We have to find more hits and runs on offense to support our pitching," says Cook. "We can't just rely on Caroline to only allow a run or two every game. Our hitting was really a key to the run we made in the post-season last year and we need to put those hits together earlier this year."
The Spring Hill infield is a collection of veteran players that Cook is eager to see return to the diamond. "This infield has a great chemistry," Cook says. "We might have even better chemistry then last year and we have a lot of talent out there." Behind the plate, sophomore Sam Leach of Axis, Ala., will move from the shortstop position to the catcher's spot and Cook has been happy with her early work. "She has played very well back there and has a lot of heart," she says. Freshmen catchers Sydney Finch from Mandeville, La., and Mary Beth Glass of Hoover, Ala., will also see playing time as they adjust to the college game.
Around the diamond, junior Lea Kittrell of Lucedale, Miss., joins the Badger Family at 3rd base after transferring from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. Junior Shea Blanchard of Breaux Bridge, La., returns to shortstop after starting in right field in 2013. The lone Badger senior Raleigh Downs of Booneville, Miss., is back at 2nd base after a 2013 season where she committed just five errors in 164 chances. Downs will be backed up by freshman Cassie Pesce of Tampa, Fla. The 1st base position will be handled by veteran junior Elise deBruler of Luling, La., who has already started in 112 contests in two seasons. Freshman Cameron Schaefer of St. Louis, Mo., will join deBruler at 1st base. "One of the best aspects of this year's team is our depth," says Cook. "As a coach, it's nice to be able to plug in players as I need them and have the time to develop young talent as it should be developed."
The outfield for Spring Hill sees two new faces in left field with freshmen Jenna Charnock of Mobile and Abbey Burman of Arab, Ala., taking the reins. Centerfield will once again be patrolled by junior Taylor Webre of Luling, La., while right field will handled by sophomore Taylor Lahasky from New Iberia, La., and junior Lena Land of Milton, Fla., who comes to SHC from Northwest Florida State College.
On offense, Cook admits there is room for improvement. "We need to be better and produce more runs," she says. "I have several options for the designated player role and we'll see who steps up to win that spot, but overall we are a lot like last year with our balance. We can scratch out runs with a 'small-ball' style, but we also have the players who can hit for power when we need it."
Cook is under no delusions about how tough the 2014 schedule will be for her team especially in the rugged SSAC West Division. "We stepped up our non-conference schedule this year and I can promise you that the West Division is looking to knock us from our national perch [as the NAIA Preseason Poll's No. 2 ranked team]. I've reminded our players that we lost 17 games last year and finished third in the West Division. That's how tough our conference is and we have to answer that challenge."
Spring Hill will open the 2014 season at home on Friday with a non-conference doubleheader versus Huntingdon College beginning at 1 p.m. on Murray Field.