Softball season gets underway

Start from scratch. Essentially, that is the challenge facing the Tennessee Tech softball team in 2009 as the Golden Eagles return only six players who saw action last year. The roster features one senior, one junior and 17 underclassmen. Head coach Tory Acheson’s team opens the season this weekend at the UT Chattanooga Invitational. Tech faces Campbell Friday at noon and Troy at 2 p.m. On Saturday, Tech meets Virginia Tech at 9:30 a.m. and Maine at 2:30 p.m.

The Golden Eagles wrap up tournament play Sunday at 2:30 p.m. against Chattanooga.

Tech returns only two players with at least 30 starts and two with more than 100 at-bats in their careers. The six returning players accounted for just 72 of Tech’s 240 runs last season.

After losing six key seniors – Beth Boden, Stephanie Fischer, Katie Speiser, Sarah Street, Blaes Schmissrauter, and Kristyn Castonzo-the Golden Eagles must rely on youth to lead them in their quest for an OVC Championship in 2009.

With 17 freshmen and sophomores, the Golden Eagles have more underclassmen than five OVC foes’ rosters. This crew is the youngest Tech team that Acheson has ever coached and is the youngest at Tech since 1995.

However, Acheson and his staff are not using that inexperience as an excuse. Not by any means. Their expectations remain the same.

“We expect to contend for the championship. Young team, old team, new team, doesn’t make any difference,” Acheson said.

The Golden Eagles are striving for their fifth regular-season OVC title in nine years

Tech players hail from nine different states across the nation including Tennessee (5), Wisconsin (4), Georgia (3), California (2), and one each from Arizona, Illinois, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Texas, making it the most diverse team in the conference. The Golden Eagles also hold the title of the tallest team in the OVC, with eight players listed at 5-foot-8 or taller.

Kristina Hortert is the most experienced competitor with two years of playing time under her belt. Hortert was forced to red shirt her junior season with an injury that kept her from seeing any action in 2008. Acheson will look to his lone senior to be the experienced leader of the youthful program. Hortert is the only player remaining from the last OVC championship team in 2007.

Tech will depend on its seven returnees for leadership both on and off the field. Sophomore Maddie Schmissrauter looks to be the ace of the pitching staff this season. Schmissrauter tallied 11 wins in her freshman campaign, allowing only 56 earned runs in 161.1 innings of work. Joining her in the rotation will be freshman Holly Thomas, who is expected to make an instant impact on the Golden Eagle roster. She is used to winning, as she pitched her high school team from Ooltewah to the Tennessee state championship in her senior season. Thomas has potential to “be the best we’ve ever had,” according to Acheson. Hortert will be third in succession on the hill. Freshman pitcher Stacey Dampf is coming off of an injury and may be a red shirt candidate.

The other half of the battery will feature sophomore catcher Callie Schmidt, a transfer from Heartland Junior College, where she was named second-team all-conference. Schmidt will also have a great influence offensively as a right-handed power hitter. She “is definitely going to open some eyes,” according to Acheson. Sophomore Kaleigh Gates will also see action behind the plate.

First base will be played by standout freshman Whitney Cummings. As a hitter, Tech will rely on Cummings as an asset in the RBI department. The right hander was a pitcher in high school, leading her team to the Oklahoma state championship and will be on the hill for the Golden Eagles at some point during the season. Second on the depth chart at first will be sophomore Anna Zdroik, who started 29 games in the outfield last year.

Sixty feet down the line will be sophomore Lacie Coquerille, who is the only returning player with more than 46 career starts. Coquerille committed only six errors in her 289 attempts, starting all 63 games last season. Freshmen Jacquie Ristow and Jessica Steele will also see time at second base.

With a cannon for an arm, freshman Samantha Everett looks to be the starter at shortstop, with support from fellow freshman Jordan Leff.

“Both are outstanding athletes with unlimited potential,” Acheson said.

Each are right-handed power hitters with amazing physical abilities. Ristow may also step in at times at the position.

On the hot corner, sophomore Katie Betry will be competing with Everett for the starting nod. Betry led all freshmen last year in several offensive categories including batting average (.248), slugging percentage (.397), runs (21), RBIs (21), and homeruns (5). She played much of her freshman year in the outfield, but is listed as an infielder for 2009.

The outfield will be filled with newcomers for the Golden Eagles with five new faces looking at potential playing time. Junior transfer Kimmie White, sophomore Kaleigh Gates, and freshman Cassidy Skeen are slated to be the starters while Leff, sophomore Taylor Horseman, and freshmen Brooke Basten and Erin Cutlip will also spend time in the outfield positions.

The 2009 schedule will be another obstacle that Acheson’s crew must overcome. Tech will open the year in early February, taking part in the UT-Chattanooga tournament. From there, they will travel to Georgia and California before returning to Chattanooga for the Frost Classic at the end of the month and wrap up tournament play in Kentucky.

The Golden Eagles will open regular season play in early March in Nashville against Lipscomb, then will waste no time as they dive into OVC play that same week at Eastern Kentucky. After 10 consecutive home games, Tech will end the regular season on an 11-game road trip. The Golden Eagles will see action at home in Cookeville only 10 days during the regular season, the fewest since the 1999 campaign.

Tech faces stiff challenges both offensively and defensively.

The offense will try to produce runs against three schools that were ranked in the top eight in ERA last season: Michigan (1), Virginia Tech (6), and Morehead State (8).

Defensively, the Golden Eagles will attempt to find a way to shut down five schools who averaged more than five runs per game last year, including seven teams who racked up nearly one home run/game or better.

Acheson is optimistic about upcoming season.

“It might be one of those years that starts out slow, but ends special,” he said.