UT MARTIN SOFTBALL LOOKS TO TALENT AND DEPTH TO PUSH SKYHAWKS OVER THE TOP
February 2, 2018
2018 Softball Media Guide
MARTIN, Tenn. – Hot off the program’s third postseason appearance, the University of Tennessee at Martin softball team will look to a talented crop of returning starters and newcomers to point the Skyhawks to continued ascension to the top of the Ohio Valley Conference in 2018.
UT Martin enters the season under the direction of head coach Donley Canary for the 17th season with high aspirations and equally impressive standards at the forefront. After a successful season in which the Skyhawks went 39-20, finished second in the OVC and notched the program’s third postseason appearance with an automatic berth into the Postseason National Invitational Softball Championship, a squad which features seven positional starters and 13 returners is chomping at the bit to take the next step and pick up the program’s first conference title since 2012.
“I think playing in the postseason was a great experience,” said Canary. “It gave the kids a taste of a championship atmosphere and gives you the desire to get back to that level. It was a great opportunity to go play, have extra practice and a few more games to continue a strong season. We have gone into the offseason talking and working towards translating that experience into sustained success.”
While the Skyhawks will have to replace a talented senior core which included a pair of All-OVC performers in first team selection Carly Gonzales and second team honoree Brooke Kennedy along with four-year starter Renate Meckl, the cupboard is far from bare in game experience on this Skyhawk squad. With seven starters returning to the fold from a year ago combined with eight newcomers, the Skyhawks will bolster an experienced squad which features 862 combined starts over the years and two deep runs in the OVC Softball Championship.
“We have most of our players back who started for us last season,” said Canary. “We can put an experienced player out there at every position. That doesn’t mean that they are going to perform at that level but we have the pieces. We just need some of our newcomers to come in and perform for us at a high level like we anticipate, while staying healthy to potentially do something special.”
The Skyhawks have proven to be a perennial contender for top honors in the OVC over the past decade but are hoping that 2018 is a season to remember alongside fellow banner years in 2010 and 2012 in which UT Martin firmly planted its flag at the top of the league standings while punching tickets to the NCAA Tournament in 2009 and 2012. With a 13-5 league mark last season UT Martin would finish in second place, proving to be the only team to steal a victory away from two-time defending league champion Jacksonville State. Despite the strong season by UT Martin, the race for the conference crown is heavily contested with seven of the league’s 12 teams finishing with 10 or more win in OVC play.
“The league is dangerous in itself,” said Canary. “While we are picked to finish second in the preseason poll by our peers, this league is competitive top to bottom. I think there are at least six teams in our league that can compete for a conference championship. Our conference has built a reputation for strong softball play and you have to be ready to go every single game in this league.”
To be able to compete throughout a challenging schedule and the grind of a 56-game slate, UT Martin will turn to its group of five seniors to pave the way for success. With four years of experience within the UT Martin program for the majority of the group, the quintet of Savannah Dodson, Jodie Duncan, Alicia Hansen, Aeron Smith and Rachel Williams bring a wealth of leadership to the squad.
“Many of our seniors have been playing a major role in our program since they stepped foot on this campus,” said Canary. “Just look at the starts alone between them, you are talking about having their name penciled in your lineup over 500 times for their career. They bring a ton to our squad. They have played in the big games, made the big plays and we look to them to spark those around them.”
Offensively the Skyhawks are coming off a strong season in which the squad posted a .295 batting average as a team while featuring five hitters who posted batting averages over .300 and led the OVC with 314 runs scored. Paired with the Skyhawks ability to reach base, UT Martin set an OVC and school record with 148 stolen bases to rank third nationally while ranking fourth with 2.51 stolen bases per game. While the team’s leader in the clubhouse of Gonzales with 41 stolen bases is lost to graduation, don’t expect the squad to take it easy on opposing catchers on the bases.
“I know we lost Carly but we still have plenty of options on the bases,” said Canary. “When you look at our numbers last year, Savannah and Alicia both ranked amongst the best base stealers in the country. When you add in a handful of other threats, I honestly believe that we have more speed than we had last year when we broke all kinds of records.”
While much of the team’s outlook can be founded on the existing production throughout the lineup, the Skyhawks believe that the roster is as deep at every position as ever before. In the infield alone the Skyhawks return starters at all five positions. While it may be hard to knock off a current incumbent, the team’s newcomers are looking to push for playing time throughout the infield.
At first base the Skyhawks could see a revolving door with several options primed for playing time. Junior Gracyn McBride started 46 games on the season – including 37 at first – while posting a .268 batting average with seven home runs and 34 RBIs. Also competing for a starting nod is converted middle infielder and Tennessee Tech transfer Aalia Bivens who joins the Skyhawks after posting a .300 batting average, seven home runs and 14 RBIs during her freshman campaign. Rounding out the trio of potential fits at first is sophomore Reid Ballard who appeared in 22 games as a freshman.
Moving over to second base is the return Dodson to a position in which she started all 59 games a year ago. The defensive wizard played exceptionally during her junior campaign, tallying 86 assists and notching a .963 fielding percentage with plus range while watching her bat develop into a consistent threat with a .322 batting average, 15 RBIs, 12 sacrifices and 27 stolen bases. Bivens could slide back to her natural positions to provide depth while junior Jessie Douglas aims to battle back from an offseason injury after tallying a .222 batting average and .986 fielding percentage in 22 starts.
Junior Alli Fulcher returns for her third season as the starting shortstop after playing in all 59 games a year ago. Fulcher provides a consistent glove along with a dangerous bat after posting a .251 batting average with four doubles, six home runs and 29 RBIs in the middle of the order. Freshman Madelyn Dycus is slated to provide depth at the position after posting a .582 batting average, 10 home runs and 55 RBIs during her senior campaign.
Manning the hot corner will be Duncan who returns for her senior season after being honored as an All-OVC first team performer in 2017. Duncan ranked amongst league leaders in several categories while posting a .360 batting average, 10 doubles, nine home runs and 48 RBIs primarily out of the five-hole in the lineup. While another strong season is expected of the lefty, freshman Halie Fain is primed to challenge for playing time around the infield after the speedster posted a .355 batting average and 22 stolen bases as a high school senior.
“I feel like I could start seven different kids in the infield alone,” said Canary. “That is a good problem to have, but also a negative because it is hard to find everyone at bats to keep them sharp for when their number needs to be called. These new kids have worked hard and can play at this level. Competition breeds success and our depth is pushing our returners really hard to perform every day in practice and ultimately in games because if not, there is someone right over their shoulder.”
A similar theme of competition moves into the outfield conversation. With a giant hole left in centerfield following graduation, the Skyhawks have several options which will complete for playing time at all three positions.
Junior Lauren Myers returns as the team’s primary left fielder after a strong sophomore campaign in which she started 56 games and posted a .304 batting average while tallying seven extra-base hits and drove in 26 RBIs along with swiping 14 bases. Adding depth in left will be freshman Paige Clark who has emerged as a dark-horse candidate for significant playing time after posting a .582 batting average and four home runs as a senior.
Center will be a position to watch as potentially the team’s most significant position battle has emerged throughout the fall and into spring. Williams returns for her second season in a Skyhawk uniform after starting 55 games a year ago primarily in right field while posting a .250 batting average with 12 extra-base hits and 38 RBIs. Coming in hot on her tail is freshman speedster Veronica Pezzoni who earned All-American honors as a high school senior after posting a .585 batting average with 67 runs scored, 28 extra-base hits and 100 career stolen bases.
Moving into right field, UT Martin will look to Hansen to return to her previous OVC All-Newcomer production after starting just 10 games but posting nine career home runs and 51 career stolen bases with plus defensive range. Competing for playing time behind the senior is freshman Alexis Rogers who brings a big bat and position flexibility after previously posting a .413 batting average during her prep career.
“I think there is going to be a lot of competition for playing time in the outfield this season,” said Canary. “This is certainly an area where were are looking for production. There is a lot of talent at those three spots, we just hope they will keep pushing like they have all offseason to force us to write their name in the lineup.”
The Skyhawks will rely heavily on Smith who returns behind the plate for her senior campaign after tallying 103 career starts and earning All-OVC second team honors a year ago. Smith proved to be one of the league’s elite catchers by striking fear in opposing base runners by throwing out 15 potential base-stealers while notching a .969 fielding percentage. Smith also led all catchers in the OVC in batting average during league play, hitting .298 while totaling six extra-base hits and 22 RBIs on the season. Despite serving as the team’s primary catcher, the duo of McBride and Ballard could also see action behind the plate.
No group will lean on the veteran experience of Smith behind the plate more than a young but talented crop of pitchers. With the loss of Kennedy who started 31 contests a season ago and accounted for 23 of the team’s 39 wins, the Skyhawks will look to pick up where she left off. The Skyhawks will go with the starting group of sophomore transfer Hannah Ridolfi, freshman Caitlin Karo, junior Sara Hooten and sophomore Samantha Scott to contribute as starters while sophomore Seeley Layne will return to her familiar role as the de facto closer.
Ridolfi joins the Skyhawks from Union University where she excelled during her freshman campaign, posting a 12-9 record and two saves with a 3.41 ERA in 123.1 innings of work. Karo will look to transition quickly to the college game after notching a 13-2 mark and a 1.75 ERA in 88 innings of work as a high school senior. Hooten returns to the rotation after notching an 8-5 record and a 2.57 ERA in 100.2 innings of work during her debut season for the Skyhawks while Scott produces a power-right hander after appearing 53.1 innings as a freshman. Meanwhile, Layne seemed to thrive in late game situations, tallying three wins and two saves in 41.2 innings of work out of the pen.
“We lost Brooke and she was a workforce for us but Hannah is a transfer that can pitch at the big time level along with Sara who is very capable of carrying a workload,” said Canary. “Karo is a freshman who is battling right now to be the lead dog because she has great stuff and really knows how to pitch. When you add in Samantha Scott who can throw harder than anyone on our team while Seeley really thrived in that closer role last season, this group can be really strong. This staff will have to prove its consistency but I think we have a lot of depth.”
UT Martin will get to put its stockpile of talent and a reloaded pitching staff to the test with hopes of another conference championship on the horizon when the team opens the regular season at the Mardi Gras Classic held in Monroe, La. beginning on Friday, Feb. 9.