GREENWOOD – Lander won as many Peach Belt Conference softball games in 2010 as it did in 2009, 2008 and 2007 combined. Lady Bearcats coach Brandon Duncan believes the team can make some more positive strides this spring.
"I think we are better," Duncan said of the Lady Bearcats, who open their 2011 season at a tournament in Aiken this weekend.
But, he cautions, "the other teams are better too. It's just going to be a dogfight (in the Peach Belt). It is every year. You know every time you go out on the field, you have to play your best. I think it's going to be fun."
The start of the Peach Belt schedule is a couple weeks down the road. Lander meets Chowan and Charleston Saturday, and Chowan and Barton Sunday in Aiken.
The home opener is Thursday, Feb. 10, versus Erskine. The PBC opener is Feb. 22 at USC Aiken.
The Lady Bearcats return two-time All-Peach Belt junior pitcher Hayley Leissner (Jefferson, Ga.), senior catcher Rachelle Adkins (Newnan, Ga.), sophomore third baseman Blair Hammonds (Abbeville, S.C.), sophomore shortstop Casey Corbitt (West Columbia, S.C.) and sophomore second baseman Brittney Sheriff (Belton, S.C.).
Also returning are senior outfielder Jacki Haisley (Rock Hill, S.C.) and sophomores pitcher Amanda Hamby (Belton, S.C.), outfielder Alyssa Hartley (Fort Mill, S.C.) and first baseman Anna Bowen (Williamston, S.C.).
The 20-player roster includes 11 freshmen and six sophomores, just the one junior in Leissner, and seniors Adkins and Haisley. Several freshmen could wind up in the starting lineup.
"Nobody knows what to expect from us," Duncan said of the team's youth. "I think it's exciting. All I know they come from good high school and summer ball programs, and most of them only know about winning."
The Lady Bearcats finished 23-24 overall and 8-12 in the Peach Belt in 2010. They wound up in eighth place in the PBC standings, but only two games out of fourth.
It was the school's best Peach Belt record since finishing 9-11 in 2000. The last time a Lander softball team finished above .500 in the PBC was in 1998 (10-8).
The eight league wins last spring represented a remarkable improvement for a program that was 2-16 in the league in 2009, 1-17 in 2008, and had no more than five league wins in a single season (2007, 2002) since 2000.
Any talk about Lander softball starts with Leissner on the mound. "She will throw the majority of our innings," Duncan said.
As a freshman, Leissner set the school single-season strikeout record with 190, and had an earned run average of 2.67. But her won-loss record was only 10-23, with several one-run defeats due mostly to the team's lack of success in 2009.
As a sophomore, Leissner improved to 17-6 overall and lowered her ERA more than a run to 1.43. She struck out 174 in 151.2 innings, pitching 14 complete games and holding opponents to a .197 batting average.
"She is a confident pitcher," Duncan said of Leissner. "When she is on the mound, our girls feel really good about where they are."
He said Leissner's improvement from her freshman year to sophomore season was due to "learning how to pitch."
Freshman M.K. Pegram (Fuquay-Varina, N.C.) and Hamby will also log important innings for the Lady Bearcats.
"It's really important to have at least two solid pitchers that you can count on, and a third to come in just to alleviate some of the innings. And I think we have that," said Duncan, entering his fourth year as Lander's coach. "I think we are as strong as we've been on the mound since I have been here."
He said what's striking about Pegram is her unconventional pitching.
"She throws with good velocity, but she has some funky movement," the coach said. "She will be a good contrast to Leissner who is more of a power pitcher, and Hamby is more of a spot pitcher, and with M.K. the ball just dances.
"M.K. has kind of an unconventional delivery. Our girls don't like facing her because she throws about five different speeds. You never really get comfortable in the box because you don't know what pitch or what speed is coming."
Hamby posted a 2-6 record with a 4.64 ERA last year as a freshman.
"She threw some really good games," Duncan said. "My most positive memory I have of Hamby from last year was she held North Georgia, the number one team in the country and one of the most prolific offenses in the country, to one run and one hit through four innings.
"That was during the last week of the regular season and they had won 42 or 43 games in a row. I pulled her as soon as they got their second runner at second base, and I told her to turn around and look at the scoreboard and wanted her to make sure she realized the magnitude of what she had done."
A fourth pitcher is freshman Treasure Bane (Pelzer, S.C.), who made big strides during the fall, Duncan said. Bane can also play other positions.
Adkins returns as the starting catcher after batting .250, with two homers and 17 RBI last year. She makes her biggest contributions behind the plate.
"Rachelle is fun to watch because she is real active, very vocal, and is really quick for a catcher," Duncan said. "She and Hayley really work well together. She is having to learn the movements and strengths and weaknesses of the other three pitchers."
Freshman Sarah Fuller (Elberton, Ga.) is the backup catcher as well as an outfielder. "Sarah is learning from one of the best in our conference (Adkins)," Duncan said.
The other three returning starters are Hammonds at third, Corbitt at short and Sheriff at second.
"Blair Hammonds moved from short last year," Duncan said. "We lost our third baseman unexpectedly and we asked her to go over there. We knew we had something when during the first game, she caught a blistering line drive, and she just got better as the year went on."
Duncan describes Corbitt as a steady, valuable player who "makes every play that a shortstop should make, and she makes most that they shouldn't make, and at the same time makes it looks easy. She is making the right decisions, especially with runners on base, when to throw, when not to throw."
Sheriff converted from shortstop to second base and is also being counted on at or near the top of the lineup. The left-hander, who is the team's leading returning hitter at .295, paced the Lady Bearcats with 30 runs scored, and was 12-for-12 stealing bases.
"She is really difficult to defend because you don't really know if she is going to slap at it and run or hit it to the fence," Duncan said of Sheriff. "It's very hard to read what she is going to do in the box."
Bowen and freshman Taylor Donson (Sarasota, Fla.) are the leading candidates to start at first base. Donson is a converted second baseman who throws left and bats right.
"We have had a good battle on our hands (at first base)," Duncan said. "It's really been fun to watch. One of them is going to be at first and the other is going to be doing something else."
The starting outfield is likely to include freshman Arielle Buchholz (Naples, Fla.) in left, freshman Jaime Presnell (Campobello, S.C.) in center, and Hartley in right. The speedy Buchholz is expected to join Sheriff near the top of the lineup.
Other outfield candidates include Haisley, Fuller, Donson and freshman Jade Deason (McCormick, S.C.). Deason, first cousin of the late former Lander player Kariana Smith, is a left-handed slap hitter.
Hayley Leissner's younger sister freshman Kegan Leissner (Jefferson, Ga.) could see playing time as well as freshman utility player. along with Morgan Robinson (Aiken, S.C.), who Duncan describes as a "firecracker in a softball uniform," and freshman infielder Katy Mantone (Aiken, S.C.). Freshman Chasity Davis (Duncan, S.C.) is a powerful hitter who can play corner infield positions or as the designated player (designated hitter).
Duncan said Kegan Leissner is a consistent hitter and the Leissner sisters "have always wanted to play on the same team and we are tickled to have them both."
Lander was picked ninth in the preseason coaches poll. North Georgia, which owns a 30-game Peach Belt winning streak and has appeared in the College World Series two years in a row, is the preseason pick to win the league again.
"North Georgia is the clear favorite," Duncan said. "They return just about everybody from a team that won 52 straight games, including a pitcher (Sarah Phillips) who is a real workhorse."
But Duncan said some other teams in the conference lost some key players, and is hoping Lander can continue to improve enough to continue climbing up the standings in 2011.