GREENWOOD – With one of the most veteran-laden rosters in recent history, the Lander softball program enters the 2018 season looking to establish itself as a player in the powerful Peach Belt Conference.
The Bearcats surprised many two seasons ago as Lander notched its first winning season in 13 years and made its first trip to the PBC Tournament in six seasons. However, the Bearcats slipped to 21-29 last year and missed the postseason.
With 13 juniors and seniors on the roster, third-year head coach Glen Crawford senses a heightened focus from his club entering the season.
"I was extremely pleased with the way we came back from Christmas break and the shape we were in and to be able to hit the ground running," said Crawford. "We kind of woke up [after last season] and said 'we have to come ready every time to play,' and, for the most part, in the fall and preseason here we have had very high energy."
The Bearcats boast seven seniors, the largest senior class in the program since 2014, and will look for that group to help replace the production lost to graduation. Lander lost second baseman Destiny Clyde, who started all 187 games of her career and batted .344 last season, along with outfielders Reychel Webster, Makenzie Smith and Emily Marousek, who combined for 106 starts last season. Webster batted .287, while Smith led the nation with 25 sacrifice hits and stole a team-high 11 bases.
"I say all the time to [the seniors], 'you know how I am, you know what I expect and it is up to you guys to let the underclassmen know that this is the way we do things,'" Crawford said. They do what we ask. The excitement and energy is like nothing we've had so far in two years."
With the departures of Webster, Smith and Marousek, the outfield is open. Senior Casey Wooten (Honea Path, S.C.) is the frontrunner for the centerfield job, while Crawford can turn to multiple options to fill out the corner spots. Juniors Kelli McCormack (Canton, Ga.), Jamie Pisel (Mooresville, N.C.) and Kasey Rogers (Bennettsville, S.C.), sophomores Logan Leverette (Winder, Ga.) and Katie Painter (Charleston, S.C.), and freshman Abby Harris (Chesnee, S.C.) are all fighting for spots in the starting lineup.
"My first year here [Reychel Webster and Makenzie Smith] made two plays in one game that were ESPN-type plays," said Crawford of his departing outfielders. "When the ball was hit, you know they were going to get it. You lose that speed and that's rough. Casey Wooten did a great job her sophomore year, so we get her back and the rest are all battling for positions. They're all about the same defensively so it comes down to who's going to hit."
On the infield, the Bearcats return plenty of experience. Lander have three starting seniors back from last year in shortstop Casey Kent (Sharpsburg, Ga.), first baseman Halie Sorrow (Monroe, Ga.) and third baseman Dariean Ward (Marietta, Ga.). Freshman Sydney Grimes (Hoschton, Ga.) is projected to replace Clyde at second base. Senior Molly McNulty (Jacksonville, Fla.) is another option at first, while sophomore Kyra Irvin (Valdosta, Ga.) and freshman Jace Bennefield (Graniteville, S.C.) provide depth at shortstop.
"Destiny was an all-conference player and a real spark plug on the infield," Crawford said. "She was our best communicator, so replacing that is hard. but we have Sydney Grimes and I think she'll do a good job. Casey Kent is probably one of the best shortstops there is around, fundamentally, but she's coming off wrist surgery. Our corners have been there for two years, but can they hold their spots? Right now there is a lot of juggling for spots, which is a good thing.
Preseason all-conference selection Chandler Carey (Hull, Ga.) will handle catching duties in her junior season. Carey led the Bearcats with a .346 batting average, eight home runs and 25 RBI a year ago. Freshman Alana Frye (Cumming, Ga., Kennesaw State) can also take over behind the plate.
"That's one spot that you can say, 'okay, Chandler will take care of it,'" said Crawford of the catcher position. "It helps the pitchers relax a little bit, knowing that you have her back there. She does a good job with the umpires and the rapport that she has with them. She is up for the challenge and I think she is going to a great job. She's a level-headed kid and, from her freshman year to now, she's really worked hard to get everything that she's got and that's encouraging."
In the circle, Lander returns every arm from last season. Senior McKenzi Ferguson (Erwin, Tenn.) led the staff with 14 wins last season, while fellow senior Hannah Newton (Peachtree, Ga.) is back healthy for 2018. Juniors Brianna Surrento (Long Beach, Miss.) and Lexi Griffin (Social Circle, Ga.) combined to make 44 appearances last year. The Bearcats also added freshman Ashley Vinson (Union, S.C.) to the staff.
"We have to take the next step in pitching," Crawford said. "We have a lot of different options as long as we stay healthy. We can change up looks for the hitters with our pitching staff so I'm really encouraged about it. I thought they came in really well and really focused. Now, we have to get between the white lines and do it, but I'm very encouraged by the way our pitching staff looks."
Despite a slight step backwards last season, Crawford feels the program heading in the right direction and feels more milestones are within reach for the Bearcats. However, his team is helping him avoid looking too far down the road.
"One thing that the players asked me to do this year, because I'm always thinking about down the road, is just focus on [season-opening opponent] Mars Hill," said Crawford. "We'll get the rest later. I tell them all the time that if you beat the ones you're supposed to beat and battle the ones you're supposed to battle, that will take you where you're supposed to be."