Returning to form: 2010 Tennessee Tech softball season preview

Game Notes

Season gets underway this weekend at Kennesaw State Invitational

Coming off head coach Tory Acheson's first season with a non-winning record after 11 years at the helm of the Golden Eagles, the Tennessee Tech softball team has some extra incentive to turn things around in 2010 and return to its familiar position atop the Ohio Valley Conference.

A youthful team a season ago, the Golden Eagles may be even younger this season and are without a senior on its 2010 roster. Despite his team's youth, Acheson is confident his squad has gained valuable experience and will be much improved from the team that finished 26-31 overall and 10-12 in the OVC.

Acheson acknowledges that the road may be a bit bumpy at times and scattered with some growing pains, but in his opinion, experiencing these difficulties will make his team stronger in the long run.

"There are lots of challenges in being young," Acheson said. "But, many of them are opportunities to take a potential negative and turn it into a positive."

One reason for Acheson's optimism is because of a phrase that is popular among his peers.

"There's a saying I've heard from several coaches that I really respect: ‘The game doesn't know,'" Acheson said. "The game doesn't know that we don't have any seniors. The game doesn't know that we're young. So we have to stop thinking that our youth is an excuse for us to not play the game the right way."

Additionally, Acheson believes that the Golden Eagle newcomers will be able to step in and provide a spark.

"Our freshman class this year is extremely talented," Acheson said. "There are many players in this class who we are counting on to make contributions this year. I think we could see freshmen starting in several key positions for us."

The freshmen will get their first taste of collegiate action this weekend when Tech begins its season at the Kennesaw State Invitational. The Golden Eagles were originally scheduled to play at the Middle Tennessee State Invitational last weekend; however, inclement weather and poor field conditions forced the tournament to be canceled.

On Friday, the Golden Eagles will take on Ball State in the first game of the 2010 season for both squads. Tech will face Mercer in the nightcap on Friday before playing Western Illinois and Alabama State on Saturday and host Kennesaw State on Sunday.

Tech has never faced Western Illinois or Alabama State but has historically had success against each of its other opponents. The Golden Eagles won their most recent match-up against Ball State in 2000, and TTU has winning records in the all-time series against both Mercer and Kennesaw State.

The tournament is the first of four on Tech's schedule this season. The Golden Eagles will also play tournaments at UT Chattanooga, Georgia Tech and Tennessee as part of a 28-game stretch in the first 31 days of the season.

The Golden Eagles will also have the opportunity to play in front of their home fans a few more times this season. After playing just 16 games in Cookeville in 2009, Tech will run out onto the Tech Softball Field a total of 22 times this season.

"This is a much stronger home schedule, and a much stronger schedule overall," Acheson said.

In OVC play, Tech hosts 14 games and plays 14 on the road. Home conference series are scheduled against Murray State, UT Martin, Eastern Kentucky and Southeast Missouri, plus a doubleheader against Jacksonville State. Tech goes on the road for league series at Austin Peay, Eastern Illinois, Tennessee State and Morehead State, and faces a single game at JSU.

"The OVC schedule balances out a little better this year," Acheson said. "It will be interesting going to Eastern Illinois early in the year. We've had a streak of bad luck playing them. Two years ago the entire series was snowed out up there and last year we fought Mother Nature for two days before we finally got to play."

Roaming the outfield this season will be some familiar faces along with a couple of newcomers. Sophomore Jordan Leff earned the team's Best Defensive Outfielder in her first Golden Eagle campaign and will call the shots from center field this season. Also returning from a strong 2009 season is junior Kaleigh Gates. Gates, the team's Most Improved Player last season, has split time between the outfield and catcher in her first two seasons at Tech.

"In the outfield, we are deep and talented," Acheson said. "I think we'll definitely be better defensively at two, if not all three, of the outfield spots."

Sophomores Brooke Basten and Erin Cutlip proved to be valuable commodities last season, especially with their contributions on the bases. The duo may be even more of a factor this season.

"We've got a little more team speed, and I think that we will try to utilize that to make our offense more dynamic," Acheson said.

Junior Anna Zdroik may make the move back into the outfield after playing first base last season to provide some extra depth and experience, while freshman Chanelle Spalding and junior transfer Abbey Hayes will both see time in the outfield.

Acheson has loads of talent and versatility in his group of infielders in 2010 led by returning first team All-OVC selection Lacie Coquerille. The junior was a bright spot for Tech a season ago at shortstop and will be a team leader again this season, likely at second base. Coquerille paced the squad with a .320 batting average, 54 hits and 31 runs scored while earning the team's Best Defensive Infielder award.

Also coming back from last year's team will be sophomores Whitney Cummings and Jessica Steele, both of whom started the majority of games in their first campaign. Redshirt freshman Samantha Everett will have the opportunity to play in her first full season after an ankle injury prematurely ended her season last year, while true freshmen Stacey Butts, Melody Christian, Brittney Spalding and Lindsey Umberger will all have opportunities to contribute right away.

"I like the competition that we have in the infield," Acheson said. "We've gone from a year where we struggled to find four consistent infielders to probably having seven or eight infielders fighting for four spots."

Acheson expects that the competition amongst his players for playing time will ultimately prove to be beneficial for his team.

"I think that the competition is good for our players because it pushes them to excel more," Acheson said. "We have a few true utility players who can play all four positions on the infield, which is good from a depth standpoint."

The Golden Eagle rotation got a boost a season ago thanks to Holly Thomas, and Acheson hopes that freshman Claudia Harke can provide that again in 2010.

"In the circle, Claudia Harke pitched very well during the fall season," Acheson said. "I was very impressed by her."

Thomas, a sophomore, was the team's Pitcher of the Year award recipient last season and led the team with 14 wins and a 2.90 ERA. She also proved to have a keen eye at the plate where she took a team-high 24 walks.

"Holly pitched very well for us at times last season," Acheson said. "Her and Claudia will be competing for who gets the ball in the big games this season."

Junior Maddie Schmissrauter pitched through injuries for much of last season and still managed 11 wins for the second consecutive season, while Whitney Cummings, who also plays first base, may also see an expanded role in the circle after appearing in six games a season ago.

"Both Whitney and Maddie are very capable of winning games for us," Acheson said. "I feel like we're strong three to four deep in the rotation and especially stronger at the top with our players pushing each other to get better."

Freshman Beth Miller will also join the Golden Eagle rotation after playing four years at Watertown (Wis.) High School.

Behind the plate, the Golden Eagles have junior Callie Schmidt returning for her junior campaign. She finished second on the team in home runs last season with six and has been focusing on improving her defensive play going into this season.

Backing up Schmidt will be Kaleigh Gates, who also plays right field.

"Callie and Kaleigh are both working hard to help make the catching position much more of a strength for us," Acheson said.

In addition to the two returnees, junior transfer Sasha Howell will provide a third catching option for TTU after playing last season at Volunteer State Community College.

Follow TTUsports.com all season long to keep up with the Golden Eagles.