Golden Eagles to meet UT Martin in first round of OVC Tournament Thursday

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Tech softball team has the distinction of being the only squad in the league to play in every single Ohio Valley Conference tournament since it began in 1994. The Golden Eagles open play in the 2009 OVC gathering Thursday at 12:30 p.m. when they meet UT Martin in Jacksonville, Ala.

While getting into the tournament and keeping the 16-year streak alive was a feat that this year's team was able to accomplish, don't expect head coach Tory Acheson and his young squad to be satisfied with just playing in the six-team field.

"We've had a very productive seven or eight days of practice," Acheson said, after his team had the final weekend of the reguiar season off. "We've been able to do some quality work that hopefully will pay some dividends. I'm sure that we'll give it our best effort and hopefully that will equate to playing good softball."

It's ayoung team heading to Jacksonville to represent Tech this weekend. Acheson's 2009 team includes only four players (Lacie Coquerille, Katie Betry, Anna Zdroik and Maddie Schmissrauter) who played positions in last year's tournament. Two members of this year's team, Taylor Horseman and Kaleigh Gates, played in the tournamentbut their participation was limited to pinch-running roles.

Nine players on the Golden Eagle roster will be playing in their first OVC Tournament, including seven freshmen. First-timers include Brooke Basten, Whitney Cummings, Holly Thomas, Cassidy Skeen, Jessica Steele, Erin Cutlip, Jordan Leff, Kimmie White and Callie Schmidt.

Regular-season champion Jacksonville State will host the event, with games Thursday through Staurday. The tournament winner receives the league's automatic trip to the NCAA Tournament.

Tech is seeded fifth in the tournament, while UT Martin -- which took two of three from the Golden Eagles a couple of weeks ago -- is seeeded fourth. In the first game of the tournament Thursday, No. 3 Morehead State takes on No. 6 Eastern Illinois at 10 a.m.

Top-seeded JSU awaits the winner of Tech's battle with UT Martin, while No. 2 seed Southeast Missouri will play the MSU-EIU winner.

Acheson's team enters the tournament with a 24-29 overall record, including a 10-12 mark in league play. Tech lost to UT Martin 7-4 in the opening game of their series on April 25, then came back behind a shutout by freshman Holly Thomas to grab a 1-0 win in the nightcap. UT Martin claimed the third game, 5-0.

"We're familiar with each other, but because of that familiarity I don't think either one of us is going to come up and surprise the other one," Acheson said about the first-round meet with the Skyhawks. "It will be a good matchup. I don't think we played our best softball when we went over there."

A year ago, Tech was seeded sixth and came out of the consolation bracket to reach the championship game before being eliminated by the host Gamecocks.

The games at UT Martin were Tech's last official games, although the Golden Eagles did play a pair of games at Vol State last week. A doubleheader at Kennesaw State scheduled for last Thursday was cancelled, meaning Tech will go into the OVC tournament having not played an official contest in 12 days.

Acheson and his squad hope they've put that break to good use.

"Honestly, I think practice time was just as valuable to this team as playing somebody," Acheson said. "This has given usa chance to go back to work on things and emphasize some of the fundamentals that we needed to work on.

"I think it's paying dividends because the kids are picking up on some things in the last week that we had not been able to do earlier," said the veteran coach. "We've made some progress this week."

Tech has been led this season by sophomore infielder Lacie Coquerille, who is hitting a team-best .316. Splitting her time between second base and shortstop, she has started all 53 games and leads the team in runs scored and hits, ranks second in doubles and third in home runs.

Junior Katie Betry at third base is next at the plate with a .310 average. Freshman Whitney Cummings, the starter at first base, leads the team with seven home runs and 32 RBI while hitting .280. Sophomore Callie Schmidt and freshman Holly Thomas had five home runs apiece.

Inside the circle, Thomas is 13-15 with a team-best 2.90 earned run average and 115 strikeouts. Sophomore Maddie Schmissrauter is 10-10 with a 3.84 ERA and 127 strikeouts in 124 innings, while senior Kristina Hortert is 1-3 with a 4.38 ERA.