Spring is inching closer, and Middle Tennessee’s softball team is set to start its season Friday at the Stacy Winsberg Memorial Tournament hosted by UCLA.
After a 19-30 overall record and 11th-place finish in the Conference USA standings a season ago, sixth-year head coach Jeff Breeden and the Blue Raiders are anxious to show improvements. They’re also hoping to show their 11th-place position in the C-USA preseason poll is folly.
“We had a good fall season,” Breeden said. “The kids came in ready to go and worked hard. We’ve had some good work in the weight room, too – the kids have gotten stronger and everyone looks in shape.”
The Raiders performed well in the fall, finishing the brief season with a 6-1 overall record.
More importantly, though, they didn’t suffer any injuries that’ve lingered over to the start of this season. That’s a blessing this time of year for a head coach.
“We have a couple of kids who’re nicked up, but not anything that’s going to hinder us in any way. We’re pretty healthy going in,” Breeden said.
In the field
Middle Tennessee is led in the field by two 2017 C-USA All-Conference First Team members, seniors Precious Birdsong and Morgan Harris. Birdsong was also named to the Preseason All-Conference USA list.
Birdsong, a centerfielder, led the team with a school-record .443 BA to go with 23 stolen bases a season ago, while Harris started all 49 games at catcher and finished with a .297 batting average, third on the team. Both will be counted on not just to produce on the field but to also provide a lot of experience and guidance for a host of young players.
“Precious and Morgan have played in every game since they’ve been here, so they’re definitely veterans,” Breeden said. “We have a mixture where you’re kind of either a strong veteran or brand new.”
Along with Birdsong, Harris, sophomore shortstop Summer Burgess (2017 C-USA All-Freshman team) and junior outfielder Kirstyn Cuccia, eight starters return from last year’s team. There are also six seniors.
That doesn’t mean this year’s squad isn’t plenty youthful, though.
Breeden brought in six newcomers this season, mostly with the hope that they can help jumpstart an offense that finished towards the bottom of most C-USA offensive categories a year ago.
In the infield, freshmen Jocelynn De La Cruz and Claire Smith and junior transfer Samantha Valentine are all expected to see time early, while freshmen catchers Ryan King and Brooke McClure will battle to become the No. 2 catcher.
With so many new faces around the clubhouse, team chemistry early on could be a question. But, so far things have been flawless for the Blue Raiders.
“Our chemistry is great right now,” Breeden said. “We have a lot of the older kids taking people under their wings and showing them how to do it.”
On the mound
Pitching was a bright spot for most of the Blue Raiders’ 2017 season, and Breeden is expecting even more from a talented group of hurlers this year.
Left-handed senior Cori Jennings had a solid 2017 after transferring from UT-Chattanooga, leading MT with 26 starts and finishing with a 2.43 ERA and 10-16 record, and she was backed by three good relievers, two of whom return this season.
While 2017 team ERA leader Megan Chocallo is gone due to graduation, seniors Pattie Ruth Taylor and Gretchen Greer are back alongside talented freshman Amber Baldwin. Their improvement and consistency behind Jennings will be critical to the Blue Raiders’ success.
“I think all of our pitchers bring something a little bit different,” Breeden said. “We’re expecting Cori to have a big year for us, and kind of how our season goes will depend on how Gretchen Greer comes along and how Amber matures.”
Improvements in 1-run games
Despite a 19-30 overall record and 6-18 mark in conference play, the Blue Raiders were more competitive than their record showed. Their problem was finding a way to win close games.
In contests decided by one run, Middle Tennessee held just a 4-11 record, 2-6 in C-USA play.
If the Raiders would have held a 6-2 record in one-run league games instead of 2-6, they would have finished the conference slate with 10 wins and been in contention for a C-USA Tournament berth. Finding a way to win those games has been a priority this offseason.
“Just from a personnel standpoint, we’re going to play better defense than we’ve ever played here, and we can get consistent pitching,” Breeden said. “Then, we just have to get some timely hits. If we can generate 20 to 30 more runs, that’s going to equal to a bunch of more wins for us.”
The Blue Raiders won’t get to ease into this season.
They’ll travel to California to take part in the Stacy Winsberg Memorial Tournament from Feb. 9-11 against some of America’s toughest competition, including host UCLA, Rutgers, Utah State, Maryland, UC Riverside and Cal Poly.
Playing alongside some of the nation’s best teams will serve a few purposes for MT.
“When we’re out in California, we want to win games and we want to compete, but I want our kids to watch how some of those big programs carry themselves and act,” Breeden said. “We can take away some things that we need to add to our program.”
Middle Tennessee will also participate in the Black & Gold Tournament in Montgomery, Alabama; the EMU Madeira Beach Spring Invitational in Madeira Beach, Florida; and the Osprey Classic in Jacksonville, Florida, in the non-conference portion of the season.
While it will be nice for his young girls to see some of the nation’s best competition and how they stack up against it, there’s one big reason why Breeden wanted to travel to some of the biggest tournaments in the country.
He wants them to be ready for a tough C-USA slate come March.
“What we’ve done is set a schedule that’ll make us ready to play conference,” Breeden said. “I don’t know what our record will be when we come out of those first 20 games, but I know we’ll have played some quality competition that will make us ready to play LA Tech the first weekend of the conference.”