Leadership a key to Golden Eagles' return to prominence in '12

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. -- Depth looks to be the key ingredient for coach Tory Acheson's Tennessee Tech softball team in the 2012 campaign as the Golden Eagles bid for their fifth Ohio Valley Conference regular-season championship in the last 11 years. The squad returns 13 players from a year ago, providing much-needed experience and leadership for this season.

"All in all, we are much deeper," Acheson said. "I think we've had much more competition at each position, and that has really pushed our level of work and effort to a higher level than it has been in the past couple of years."

The Golden Eagles open the season this weekend at Florida State's Seminole Classic. (Read tournament preview)

Here is a position-by-position outlook on the 2012 Golden Eagles:

Pitcher

"I feel that we have quality depth in our pitching rotation this year," Acheson said. "I think all five of our pitchers can be successful and will see time."

Senior Holly Thomas will bear the title of ace for the Golden Eagles in her fourth season in the circle. Her 16 victories and 131 strikeouts a year ago have earned her a spot on the College Sports Madness Preseason All-OVC team.

Thomas will share the rotation with fellow East Tennessean Erica Tuck.

"Holly and Erica have done a very good job and those two will definitely be getting some innings," Acheson said.

A pair of returnees, Claudia Harke and Whitney Cummings will also see time in the circle, with Cummings serving the role of stopper/closer.

"Claudia Harke has had some back issues, so we're not sure when she'll be ready to get back into things. Cummings will be filling the closer/stopper role. Freshman Taylor Ketchum is also expected to compete for playing time."

Catcher

The off-season has also seen competition for the starting role behind the plate. Sophomore Kendall Hooper returns the most experience after appearing in 20 games in her freshman campaign, but fellow sophomore Emma Woo and freshman Mekenzie Weems have also made an impact this spring.

"Right now Kendall is the starter," Acheson said. "Emma and Mekenzie have done very well. I don't think it's clear-cut absolute that any one of them is the full-time starter yet."

Acheson is looking for the right candidate to provide leadership on the field. "Kendall's leadership and communication is a key factor for our team defense," he said. "Emma and Mekenzie played well this fall, but they have to step up their leadership to challenge Kendall."

First Base

Chanelle Spalding will be the starter at first base for the Golden Eagles, as she started 47 games there a year ago. "Chanelle has had a very productive spring semester so far," Acheson said. "She's been swinging the bat well and she's providing a lot of leadership and communication in the infield."

Senior Whitney Cummings may also see time at first, but will be utilized mainly as a designated player and short-outing pitcher.

Second Base 

A transfer sophomore from Yavapai College, Cassie Garrett has made an instant impact in the infield and has earned the starting job at second base. "Cassie just joined us in January and she has really gotten off to a very good start," Acheson said. "She's still a work in progress as far as learning all the things we do and all the parts of the defense that run through that position."

Tyler Templet will continue to serve as a pinch runner, but may also see time at second. "Tyler has done a great job and provided solid leadership," Acheson said.

Shortstop

Back from an injury, senior Samantha Everett will start at shortstop for the Golden Eagles. "She's had a productive spring and she gives us consistency at that position that we really need," Acheson said. "She's been swinging the bat pretty well in practice, so we look for her to contribute at the plate as well."

Freshman Hannah Eldridge will serve as the backup at shortstop as she continues to develop her game. "Hannah has a tremendous future for us," Acheson said. "The only thing she's lacking right now is the experience."

Third Base

With her twin sister across the diamond, Brittney Spalding will start at third base, but has received some competition from junior transfer Emily Burch. "I'm completely comfortable with either Brittney or Emily playing," Acheson said. "Brittney gives us a little more leadership and a little more explosiveness."

A very good hitter, Burch could be utilized as a pinch-hitter when she isn't filling a role in the field. Acheson said Burch could play at either third base or shortstop if needed.

Outfield

From the dirt to the fence, the Golden Eagles will have the outfield covered very well this season.

Freshman Angi Sakamoto will get the starting nod in left field as Acheson has been very impressed by what she's able to do with her glove. "Angi has tremendous upside," he said. "She has a chance to be a very special player."

One of the most versatile weapons in the Golden Eagle arsenal is sophomore Melody Christian, who will be anchoring the outfield this season. Having her speed and bat in the lineup will be key as Christian will be the starter in center field. "I think this is the perfect position for her defensively," Acheson said. "It puts her in a position where we can take advantage of her tremendous athletic ability. She's got great range and runs down balls that most people wouldn't dream of getting to." Her leadership is one of the many assets Melody brings to the table. "She's really taking charge and becoming the field general for the outfield and it's very exciting to see," Acheson said. "You can count on seeing her in centerfield from now on. There's no discussion about that."

Senior Brooke Basten has earned the starting position in right field. "She's been swinging he bat exceptionally well and she's another one who has been providing us with a lot of intangibles," Acheson said. "Her leadership, experience and desire are all tremendous assets for us."

Adding depth in the outfield, sophomore Kayla Floyd is also in the picture. "She's basically our 4th outfielder right now," Acheson said. "Offensively, her speed and short game really create havoc for the opposition and I would be completely comfortable with her stepping into the starting lineup if something happens." Floyd will be competing for playing time at any of the outfield positions. Red-shirt freshman Christian Gibbs will also serve as a backup in the outfield and may see time at either left or center field, and may be utilized as a pinch runner in certain situations.

Designated Player

With seven homeruns and 23 RBIs last season, senior Whitney Cummings looks to play the role of designated player for the Golden Eagles. "We're excited to see her hitting the ball the way we think she's capable of," Acheson said. "She's got enough experience now that we hope she'll be the clutch performer we need her to be."

Emily Burch and Kayla Floyd may also be utilized as designated players depending on the situation.