SKYHAWK SOFTBALL LOOKS TO LEAVE THEIR MARK IN 2014
January 31, 2014
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MARTIN, Tenn. - After making the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament championship game for the fourth time in the last five years, University of Tennessee at Martin head coach softball Donley Canary and the 2014 edition Skyhawk softball squad is primed for another deep postseason run.
Despite dropping the squad’s opening game in the 2013 OVC Tournament, the Skyhawks quickly rebounded by stringing together four consecutive games to find themselves in yet another championship game appearance.
Canary and the Skyhawks have won two OVC championships, a pair of OVC Tournament championships and earned two NCAA Regional berths in the past five seasons. After falling just short of adding to that number last season, the Skyhawks will turn to five key returners who took home postseason honors.
Following trips to tournaments at Southeastern Louisiana, Kennesaw State, Ole Miss and Rebel Spring Games the Skyhawks began the home portion of their schedule with a 14-7 non-conference record. The Skyhawks wasted little time opening up their home slate with a victory against SEC foe Ole Miss. Following matchups against Trevecca, Evansville, Southern Illinois and Memphis the Skyhawks would finish with a 19-8 nonconference record.
“We started out very strong,” said Canary. “We said if we could start out .500 after our first 25 games, it would be wonderful. We eventually came through with a 14-7 record, which we were incredibly pleased with considering the type of competition we were up against.”
After kicking off OVC play with an 8-2 mark, the Skyhawks hit a bump in the road before finishing the conference portion of the schedule with a 14-10 record and the No. 5 seed in the conference tournament. Following a valiant comeback attempt, winning four consecutive games to find a place in the championship game, the Skyhawks would finish the season with a 37-20 mark.
“We certainly have some holes to fill after the loss of all-American Leah Taylor and Becca Williams who each started at their respective positions for three years,” said Canary. “Combined with the loss of Katie Reiff up the middle, we lost several players who know our philosophy, our style and knew how to represent this program.”
Taylor leaves the program with her name throughout the school’s record book. Taylor was the program’s first Easton Fastpitch All-American as a junior while garnering CoSIDA Capital One Academic All-American honors as both a junior and senior. She leaves the program as the leader in runs scored (162), triples (18), walks (76) and stolen bases (110) while ranking in the top-10 in 13 statistical categories.
Williams will be remembered as one of the winningest players in program history, winning 151 career games and was the team’s lone four-year member. She tallied five career home runs along with 21 doubles and 49 RBIs. Over her career she appeared in 173 games, starting in 137 in right field. Reiff started every game of 2013 before suffering a season-ending injury, tallying 10 hits and three RBIs.
“We are transitioning from having a young team full of freshmen and sophomores, who had to be major contributors, to now having experience at several positions,” said Canary.
The outfield will face possibly the most drastic overhaul in terms of experience. After having an outfield consisting of two seniors and a junior, Kayla Wade will make the move from left field to centerfield for her senior campaign. Wade brings an element of speed which is well documented in the Skyhawk record book, ranking second in career triples (13) and times hit by pitch (22) while sitting fourth on the all-time list with 52 stolen bases.
The remaining corner outfield positions will be filled by a mixture of newcomers and returners. A pair of freshmen are primed to take starting roles to open the spring in Renate Meckl and Gabby Glenn. Meckl joins the program from Oconomowoc, Wis. where she was both an Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year in her prep career. Glenn joins her sister Autumn in the Skyhawk uniform from Covington, Tenn. where she took home numerous prep accolades.
Joining Meckl, Wade and Glenn in the outfield will be junior Kelsey Dixon and newcomers Juli Layne, Carly Gonzales and Taylor Manning. Dixon saw action in 32 games last season while Layne joins the Skyhawks from Middle Tennessee. Gonzales and Manning both hail from California and will provide depth in the outfield unit.
“Renate Meckl and Gabby Glenn would be starting the corner outfield positions if the season started tomorrow,” said Canary. “They are both great players, who are only going to get better. They can both hit, both run and have a great sense of the game. I’m excited to coach each of these new girls and see how good they can get the next four years.”
The infield, in particular the corner infield positions, will be an area of strength for the 2014 squad. With the return of all-OVC junior infielders Kenzi Tate and Lauren Smith manning the corner positions, while providing offensive production in the middle of the order, the Skyhawks will look to fill their middle infield holes. Tate was an all-OVC first teamer, leading the league with 13 home runs and a UT Martin record 56 RBIs to go along with a .359 batting average en route to NFCA Division I All-Region honors. Smith was an all-OVC second teamer who finished with a .329 batting average along with 11 home runs and 34 RBIs.
Senior Stephanie Nidiffer will serve as the backup for Tate along with filling in at designated player. Backing up Smith will be newcomers Brooke Kennedy and Tayler Jerrick. Kennedy was named Class 1A Miss Softball along with being tabbed as West Tennessee Player of the Year from Bath Springs, Tenn. Jerrick hails from Anaheim, Calif. where she was conference most valuable player as a senior.
“We know that we have a lot of talent when it comes to the corner infield positions,” said Canary. “We return two all-conference performers in Kenzi and Lauren and we expect them to continue the great work they have done so far in their young careers.”
The middle infield positions will see a healthy mixture of incumbents along with a newcomer. Junior Samantha McClure will be primarily used at shortstop while Autumn Glenn will add depth at the position, moving over from third base last season. McClure started 39 games down the stretch while Glenn saw action at the hot corner in 30 games as a freshman.
Second base will see as many as three players have an opportunity to see action led by sophomore Jessie Britt who started in 33 games last season. Britt will be backed up by freshman Bella Zizzi and junior Lindsey Feigl who will be looking to return to the team by midseason from a shoulder injury. Zizzi joins the Skyhawks from Cross Plains, Tenn. where she was a two-time recipient of the Offensive Player of the Year award. Feigl started 19 games for the Skyhawks last season down the stretch.
“Our middle infield will be filled by returners Jessie Britt at second base and Sam McClure at shortstop,” said Canary. “Both of those kids played a lot for us last year and did a great job. Sam is a very intelligent player who works extremely hard to serve as the glue of our infield. You have got to be strong up the middle to be a good softball team, and I believe that we are in good hands.”
After a rather large void was left following the 2012 season leaving several question marks of who would fill the void of veteran Erica Duke, Deven Wilson stepped in as a freshman and nailed down her spot within the order. Wilson earned 51 starts behind the plate as a freshman while owning an impressive fielding percentage of .982 and only suffering five errors on the year. Wilson found her offensive stroke as the season progressed, finishing with a .285 batting average to go along with three home runs and 19 RBIs on her way to All-Newcomer league honors.
Wilson will be backed up by Meckl who will split time in left field and behind the plate. Meckl hit .573 with 38 RBIs as a senior while maintaining a .967 fielding percentage behind the plate and catching nine of 11 runners attempting to steal.
“At catcher we have a pair of options in Deven Wilson and Renate Meckl,” said Canary. “Catcher went from being a big question mark, to one of our strengths on our ball club. Both Deven and Renate can catch and call at the Division I level right now.”
The pitching circle has additionally transitioned into a spot of depth for the Skyhawks with six players expected to come in and compete for action. The pitching core is led by juniors Casey Vincent and Tate who both tossed in impressive campaigns last season. Vincent, a lefty from Hillsboro, led the team with a 2.30 ERA in 176.2 innings of work while notching a 15-9 record. Vincent struck out 125 batters while allowing just 43 walks, in turn limiting her opponents to just a .246 batting average. Tate joined Vincent in the circle, leading the team with a 20-6 record, including a span in which she won nine consecutive games.
The junior duo will be joined in the circle by Glenn, Jerrick, Elizabeth Wiegand and Kennedy. Glenn appeared in 17 games last season, including three starts. She finished with a 2-1 record along with tying a team record with three saves in relief.
Kennedy will be one of three freshmen to compete for innings inside the circle. Jerrick dominated in the circle in high school, leading her team to back-to-back-to-back CIF appearances. Wiegand, from Moscow Mills, Mo., posted an impressive 22-3 record with a 0.74 ERA over 161 innings.
“When we look at the circle, it is a position of strength,” said Canary. “We have a lot of depth led in large part by Casey Vincent. She’s capable of completely dominating a game with a great off-speed pitch along with several other tough options. Kenzi’s record last season speaks for herself, while her competitiveness ranks in the top three of kids I have ever coach. After those two, we have several returners and newcomers that can come in and give us a lot of depth.”
The Skyhawks will waste little time acclimating to the 2014 schedule with a full 56 game slate including several regional and conference rivalries. The slate features 56 scheduled games against 34 different opponents. The Skyhawks will travel to four non-conference tournaments while facing opponents from the Missouri Valley, American Athletic and Southeastern conferences.
“The overall schedule is very challenging,” said Canary. “We’re playing several teams that are nationally ranked and from large conferences. We’ll see the likes of Indiana out of the Big 10, Ole Miss out of the SEC and Central Florida and Memphis from the American Athletic. Playing so many games early gets you ready to play. You become well versed in how to pack your suitcase by the end of the tournament schedule.”
“When we look at conference play, we tell our kids, if you can play around .500 on the road then you are putting yourself in a great position to contend for a conference championship. The depth in the conference is always tough and you want to get off to a strong start as we begin conference play on the road. Our conference is ranked 17th out of 32 conferences who play Division I softball. The OVC has fared very well against tough non-conference competition, and nearly every team in this league can play with anyone in the country.”
Canary and the Skyhawks will kick off the 2014 season on Friday, Feb. 7 when they play host Louisiana Tech at 9 a.m. in the first game of the Louisiana Tech Lady Techster Invitational.