2006 East Carolina Softball Outlook
Feb. 7, 2006
The first nine years of the Tracey Kee era at East Carolina University have been filled with emotional victories, heartbreaking losses, championship glory and disappointing season ends. The challenges have been great, but have been met head-on with courage and determination and her 10th season isn't expected to be any different.
Kee's teams have played in three conferences and now, although it still called Conference USA, she will lead her troops against a fourth set of conference foes along with a refurbished roster.
Marshall, Tulsa, UCF and UTEP join ECU, Houston, Memphis, Southern Miss and UAB as the new faces of Conference USA. To continue its sustained success of winning in 2006, East Carolina will rely on a talented group of newcomers to team with a poised group of veterans.
"We've talked about this team and we know that we are not last year's team," explained Kee. "This year's team has bought into the fact that we've got to win as a unit. Top to bottom we have athletes galore, which will allow us to put multiple lineups on the field and rest people when they are not hitting."
The Pirates will face the challenge of trying to replace 3/4 of their infield, including its top two offensive producers. The departures of Kate Manuse, Mandi Nichols and Leigh Savoy leave the Pirates without their top three home run hitters and infield staples. The Pirates also took a hit in the outfield as Shirley Burleson, the team's leader in stolen bases, also completed her eligibility.
"The biggest question mark with our team is experience," said Kee. "I think our seniors are going to step up because we need them to. They've been through it and they understand the competition. Experience is something you can only get by playing. We're fierce competitors and phenomenal athletes and hopefully that will make up for what we lack in experience."
The 2006 schedule is one of the most difficult in the country and includes a visit from the Cal Bears, who reached the Women's College World Series last season. The Pirates will face seven teams that participated in the NCAA Tournament, including two that advanced to the Super Regionals.
The Pirates will open the season at the Worth Invitational, hosted by Florida Atlantic, where it will open the year against Bethune Cookman, Florida Atlantic, Pittsburgh and Purdue. They will also head to Charleston, S.C. later in the season to participate in the Cougar Classic.
ECU host three tournaments this season which feature teams such as Michigan State, Seton Hall, Bethune Cookman, Penn State and Coastal Carolina in addition to Cal. North Carolina, NC State and UNC Wilmington will also make treks to Greenville for non-conference games.
Once again, ECU host four Conference USA series with UAB, Marshall, UTEP and Southern Miss each paying a visit. Conference road series include trips to Houston, Tulsa, Memphis and UCF.
"We have some great teams on our schedule this season," Kee said. "Obviously we've got to take care of business in Conference USA. As a program we want to be tops in our conference as well as be able to punch a ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
"I personally believe that any team one through nine could win Conference USA. I think the parity in this conference is unbelievable," said Kee. "That's exciting and it makes you bring your best effort everyday because there are no gimmes."
The Pirates will look to gain an automatic birth to the NCAA Tournament at the 2006 Conference USA Tournament in Tulsa on May 11-13.
The lone returning infielder this season is senior third baseman Ashley Quick. Regarded as a fearless defender, she had an outstanding fall at the plate following her first-year struggles offensively after transferring from junior college. The addition of a talented recruiting class has made her better, while she has also gotten stronger in the weight room.
During the fall, her offensive numbers were significantly better than last season and she developed a better approach at the plate and has more confidence in her hitting style. An instinctive base runner, Quick has increased her power with the ability to drive the gaps.
Expected to be next to Quick on the infield at shortstop is sophomore Paige Baggett. A Conference USA all-freshman team player last season, Baggett batted .326 with two home runs and 24 RBIs in 59 games, making nine starts at shortstop. As a freshman she gained a lot of experience, which should play a vital role in her progression as a player in 2006.
Across the diamond from Quick will be freshman Jessica Johnson. Given the unenviable task of replacing Manuse, Johnson is someone who the coaching staff identified initially as someone who could fill that role. A pure hitter that thrived against some of the nation's best high school pitchers, she has the experience to step into the role both offensively and defensively.
Freshman Angel Barella is also expected to share some time with Johnson at first base. She is a talented and skilled hitter that is expected to hit for average and have an impact.
Taking over at second base this season is sophomore Erin St. Ledger. As a freshman she made 16 starts at second base and had the second-most pinch-hit appearances on the team. Her sensational rookie play earned her all-freshman team accolades. If she is able to duplicate her numbers on a daily basis with a year under her belt, she will help the Pirates onto another winning campaign.
Senior Alison Monce has moved to center field for her final year of competition. Monce played in 70 games as junior and made 69 starts. Gifted with the ability to quickly track down balls in the outfield, she will need to improve her offensive numbers in order to retain her starting role.
Another returning outfielder is sophomore Beth Nolan. She enters the 2006 season with a renewed sense of confidence after developing a new approach at the plate this fall. She batted just .196 as a freshman, but is expected to be more of a contributor offensively as she again will be a regular in right field.
Junior Jessica Potter is one of the hardest workers on the team. She possesses a lot of intangibles that push her teammates to work harder. She gives the Pirates a left-handed bat off the bench that can drive the ball as well as give the team innings in the outfield.
Sophomore Laurel Carlson missed the entire fall with a knee injury. If she is able to recover, Carlson supplies the Pirates with a good hitter off the bench. A pure hitter with a terrific eye she earned All-Conference USA Freshman team honors last season hitting .301 as the designated player.
Junior college transfer Joyce Roodenburg has been used exclusively in three positions since coming to ECU: left field, third base and catcher. She is a very steady and intelligent player that has quickly adapted to ECU's style of play. Small in stature, she displayed surprising power during the fall and determination of an everyday player that will make sizeable contributions throughout the year.
Freshman Sarah Bibee is one of the best athletes on the team and can play a variety of positions. She is a versatile player who possesses both strength and speed. She is regarded as one of the fastest players on the team and has worked hard to improve her hitting skills and is expected to give the Pirates a spark this season. Coaches have experimented with her at second base and in the outfield.
Another player that can play a variety of positions is Vanessa Moreno. Most likely to be in the starting outfield this spring, Moreno spent a lot of time at shortstop in the fall. She is a fierce competitor that can do a multitude of things offensively. A bundle of energy, Moreno gives the Pirates options at every position.
Senior Krista Jessup started all 74 games behind the plate last season and is the Pirates' top returning hitter this season. A second team all-conference player, Jessup batted .326 with 42 runs and 30 RBIs as a junior. Deemed the senior leader on the team, Jessup has a unique style of leadership that includes leading by example and using a touch of humor.
Defensively, she is one of the best ever behind the plate at ECU. Blessed with a strong throwing arm and superior blocking skills, Jessup commands the respect of opposing base runners, while doing an exceptional job of handling the pitching staff. Coming off a great fall in which she batted in multiple spots in the order, Jessup has a knack for getting on base and the speed to move around them. She was successful on 13-of-18 stolen bases attempts a year ago and will again try to use her speed to help manufacture runs.
Coming off a record-breaking season of 2005, junior Keli Harrell looks primed for another stellar season. A second team all-conference player, Harrell established new ECU single season records for strikeouts, innings pitched and saves, while leading Conference USA in each of the aforementioned categories and victories.
A great competitor on the mound, Harrell will be the leader on the pitching staff and the addition of freshman Brooke Swann to the rotation should keep her number of innings down.
A hard throwing, power pitcher Swann isn't afraid to reach back and challenge hitters. She had little trouble adjusting to the additional three-feet between the mound and plate as opposed to high school. A three-time region pitcher-of-the-year, Swann is a very accurate pitcher that will throw strikes and keep rival hitters honest.
One of the most competitive players on the team is senior Stephanie Hayes. In her first season out of junior college, Hayes posted a 13-4 record with a 2.21 ERA, while holding opposing hitters to a .243 average. She won some crucial games for the Pirates early in 2005, starting off 7-0 before going just 6-4 in her last 10 decisions. This season she is expected to maintain that intensity level throughout the year.
Senior Brently Bridgeforth has won 40 games during her first three seasons in the program and hopes to add a few more wins to her resume. As a junior she posted a record of 13-2, but only made four appearances after April 1 as she labored with her control. During the fall, she regained her command that held opposing hitters to a .225 batting average in 2003. ECU will need her to have an outstanding senior season if it hopes to repeat the success of 2005.
"This staff complements each other as a unit," stated Kee. "If we can get them all throwing consistently at the same time, then we'll be able to throw a variety of pitchers at our opponents."