Feb. 9, 2006
Together with a new field, a new look, a new coaching staff, and an eleven-member freshmen class, the 2006 season could be a new beginning for the Stephen F. Austin Ladyjack softball team, who opens the season at the Purple and Gold Challenge at Louisiana State's Tiger Park in Baton Rouge, La., this weekend. On Friday, the Ladyjacks will face South Dakota State in the season's opener before facing tournament host, LSU. Saturday's match-ups for the SFA include Arkansas-Pine Bluff and fellow Southland Conference member, Northwestern State. Last year's Ladyjack squad posted an 18-30 (.375) overall record and had a ninth-place finish in the SLC with an 8-19 (.296) record.
After months of practicing and scrimmaging against eachother, first-year head coach Jenifer Wells says her squad is just ready to get on the playing field.
"Everyone's healthy," said Wells. "And they're just ready to play. They've been practicing really hard and they're anxious to see where they stand, especially since they're facing an SEC (LSU) team right off."
Led by preseason All-SLC honorees, seniors Lee Lara and Carrie Woydziak, the Ladyjacks return nine others. Together with a talented group of freshmen, Wells sees the talent of her team coming together.
"Last year's team performed well in spurts," said Wells. "We do have talent. And now, with this freshman class, we're pretty solid. Its just trying to find that combination that works."
The 2006 squad, who was chosen by league coaches and sports information directors to finish ninth this season, consists of six pitchers who can produce some quality innings, including three who can provide offensive support at the plate. With Woydziak and Hersey, who were among the SLC's top-10 in multiple categories last season, and a young group of talent that can bring power and speed to the lineup, Wells believes the Ladyjacks have what it takes to put together a turnaround season.
With four members of last year's pitching staff returning to the mound this season for SFA, joined by two freshmen, Wells has plenty of options. Seniors Nicole Carter, Julie Morse and Traci Moore, and sophomore Kaitlin Morrison bring at least a year of collegiate experience to the field. Rounding off the 2006 pitching squad are freshmen Kari Hugie and Debra Boles.
Carter, the only lefty on the squad, led the Ladyjacks and set a career high in 2005 with 102 strikeouts. Wells believes that Carter's experience will anchor the pitching staff.
"I look for her to be our ace," said Wells. "She has great movement and changes speed so she can make her ball do whatever it is she wants it to do."
Also returning to the mound is Grove, Texas product, Julie Morse. As a junior, Morse led the Ladyjacks with a 3.60 ERA in 33 appearances, while recording a 5-8 record.
"Julie put up some great numbers at San Jacinto Junior College, but I don't think she had much of a chance last year," Wells said. "She's a good pitcher and has great command of her pitches.
"With Julie and Nicole, hopefully we can put a better product behind them this season and get them some run support so they can have a season they're capable of having," she said.
Next on the staff is what Wells calls "one of the best athletes on our team" in Kari Hugie. The freshman from Scott, Miss., collected a 29-8 record her senior year in high school to go along with her 439 strikeouts.
"She will definitely see a lot of the innings on the mound for us," said Wells. "Another thing that Kari brings is a huge offensive capability. So when she's not pitching, we will have to find somewhere else to put her just to keep her bat in the lineup."
Together with Hugie, Carter and Morse bring the most offensive ability on Wells' pitching staff.
"Morse is a power hitter that is just fun to watch," said Wells, "Carter, who had 21 RBI and a .305 average last season, is one of the most consistent hitters we have. So when they're not pitching, we need to make sure we keep Carter, Hugie and Morse in the lineup because of their sticks."
Porter, Texas freshman, Debra Boles, could also see some time in the starting rotation.
"Debra does a great job changing speeds," said Wells "She can really control the tempo of the game and she has great poise on the mound."
Morrison and Moore close out the Ladyjack pitching staff. Both returning pitchers will strengthen the Ladyjack bullpen.
Moore finished the 2005 season with a 4.63 ERA and recorded a career-high 53 strikeouts in 87.2 innings of work.
"We've been working with her in the off season to regain control of her pitches," said Wells. "She's really coming along and will see some key innings"
After spending the off-season recovering from injuries, Morrison is slowly working her way back to form.
"Kaitlin has been working hard to get stronger and gain some endurance," Wells said. "Right now, we're just working on getting her strength back. So, depending on how she comes around, we're not sure how much action she'll see."
Seniors Lee Lara and Tara Hersey bring some experience to a very young SFA infield.
Lara, a first-team preseason Southland Conference pick, will get the nod at the hot corner after posting a .291 batting average with 22 runs and knocking in 19 in 2005. She also hit a career-high four home runs last year.
"Lee's a stud," said Wells. "She definitely has the tools and the ability to have the best year of her career. She just goes hard the whole time. Lee just gives 100% all the time."
Tara Hersey returns to the Ladyjacks for her final season after having a career year in 2005. She led the team with a .379 batting average, knocking in 37 runs and scoring 16. She recorded 19 extra-base hits, including five home runs.
The 6-0 Santa Fe, Texas native will see some time at first base and is expected to hit in the middle of the lineup.
"Tara is a good hitter with a lot of power. We just need to make sure we get some runners on in front of her," said Wells.
However, Hersey may be splitting time at her first base post with newcomer Kristyn Shelton. Shelton, a 5-7 native of McKinney, Texas, was a late addition to the Ladyjacks this fall. She had decided early on that she did not want to play softball at the collegiate level, but luckily for the Ladyjacks, changed her mind.
"Late in the fall, she eventually decided to come out and play and she's just been an awesome addition," said Wells. "She brings power and is a solid first baseman. She'll really add some depth at first base."
Second base will have some depth with four players competing for the starting spot. Heather Hebert, who is coming off an injury suffered early last season, will see some time along with freshmen Krystil Burney, Kendall Driver, and Kaci Rutledge.
Burney was also a late addition to the Ladyjack team. After agreeing to play for SFA last spring, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma and was unable to make her way to Nacogdoches until this spring.
"We're trying to get Burney back to form and Hebert healthy," Wells said. "After that, with Kendall and Kaci, anything goes at second base."
Taking over at shortstop is freshman Sydney Davis. The 5-11 recruit from Tulsa, Okla., does exactly what she needs to do in the infield, according to Wells.
"Sydney is a solid shortstop," said Wells. "She works hard, does what she needs to do, and makes the plays. She's an offensive asset to the team as well."
Making an impact for the Ladyjacks this fall from behind the plate is freshman Kim Daley. "Kim's a great catcher," said Wells about the 5-3 League City, Texas native. "We've been working on effective locations and teaching her to call a good game. We're working on teaching her how to recognize the strengths and weaknesses in the hitters. She's just a student of the game and really works hard."
Rounding off the SFA infield is sophomore Jessica Tullos who has seen time at almost every position this winter. In 40 games last season, Tullos hit .262 with 24 RBI. She scored 16 runs and had 10 extra-base hits, including three home runs.
"She's a kid that is pretty good at every spot," said Wells. "She's going to be our big utility person and we've been working her out all over the place. She's also been working hard on her hitting and will definitely see some time as our designated player."
With two players returning to the outfield, the third position is still up for grabs. Senior Carrie Woydziak, a second-team All-SLC preseason pick, and junior Crystal Dahlquist take the centerfield and left field positions, respectively.
"Crystal is a probable starter in the outfield," Wells said about the Brenham, Texas native. "Offensively, she's performed quite well thus far, having speed and power. She's solid in the outfield."
Woydziak returns for her final season after batting .377 and leading the Ladyjacks with 58 hits, five triples and 30 runs scored. She also had 19 stolen bases on the season.
"Woydziak will be starting in center," said Wells. "We have goals for Carrie to make the first-team All-SLC this year. We just need her to get hot and stay hot. She can be as good as she wants to be."
Freshmen Benet Higgs, Crystal Garcia, Jennifer Valenti and senior Kelsey Boland will be competing for that final starting position with Carter and Hugie adding some depth when they're not pitching.
"Kelsey has really shown some improvement in the outfield," Wells said. "She's been working hard and you can tell she really wants to be in there.
"Garcia needs to get some experience under her belt. She was out most of the fall with an injury. She's just trying to get back to full speed.
"Then we have Jennifer Valenti who we have moved to the outfield and she's making a good transition," Wells said.
"Finally, we have Benet Higgs," she added. "She's an outfielder with a lot of ability at the plate. Benet will see time in the outfield, hopefully working her way into a starting position."
With a lot of young talent and a lot of experienced players on her squad, Wells will just be looking for that perfect combination to formulate a much needed turnaround season for the SFA Ladyjacks.
"I have a group of really competitive girls and great athletes," said Wells about her team. "When you have 22 players and only nine start, practices are fun because they're competitive. They are a fun group of hard, working girls."
On Friday, the Ladyjacks will face South Dakota State at 11 a.m. and LSU at 3:30 p.m. Saturday's schedule includes Arkansas-Pine Bluff at 11:15 a.m. and a non-conference match-up with Northwestern State at 6:00 p.m. All games will be played at Tiger Field on the LSU campus in Baton Rouge, La.