2012 Softball Outlook Part I

UABSPORTS.COM East Carolina's coaching staff, which won the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Mideast Region Coaching Staff-of-the-Year award last season, returns intact for 2012.
East Carolina's coaching staff, which won the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Mideast Region Coaching Staff-of-the-Year award last season, returns intact for 2012.

Feb. 7, 2012

GREENVILLE, N.C. - If one is good, then two are better and three must be great. Coming off an unprecedented two-year stretch, the East Carolina softball program will try to extend it to a three-season run this spring. In the last two campaigns, the Pirates have produced a pair of NCAA Tournament regional final appearances, two Conference USA Tournament championships, one league regular season crown, an 85-40 overall record and a 30-15 mark against C-USA competition.

This year's team returns 12 letterwinners and eight starters, but must replace All-America pitcher Toni Paisley as well as the No. 2 hurler the last two seasons, Faith Sutton. While there will be new faces in the circle, the award-winning coaching staff returns intact.

Directing East Carolina is 16th-year head coach Tracey Kee, who enters her 26th season with the program. She spent four years (1987-90) as a standout player and six (1991-96) as an assistant coach before taking over the helm. A win at UTEP on April 22, 2011, allowed Kee to reach the 650-victory plateau and she enters 2012 with 659 triumphs to her credit.

Kee will be aided in the dugout again by associate head coach Natalie Kozlowski, returning for her 12th season. The last two campaigns, Kee and Kozlowski have been selected as the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Mideast Region Coaching Staff-of-the-Year.

Since the start of the 2001 season when Kozlowski joined the staff, the Pirates have amassed a record of 457-252-1 (.644 winning percentage). Her work with the 2011 offense might be her most notable performance to date. Of the team's regular offensive starters, seven were underclassmen - including six freshmen. The spark at the top of the order was provided by first-year standout Kristi Oshiro, who, under the guidance of Kozlowski, tallied team-best marks in hits, walks and runs scored.



Joining Kee and Kozlowski for her second year in a coaching role is graduate assistant Cristen Aona, who started for the Pirates from 2007-10. Aona works with the infield and offense and helped ECU successfully integrate 10 freshmen into the program a year ago. Under Aona's watch, four of those rookies were named to the C-USA All-Freshman Team while Jill Jelnick was also selected to the league's second team. In addition, three East Carolina freshmen were honored as Conference USA All-Tournament Team selections.

This year, the coaches will only be breaking in five freshmen, three pitchers and two infielders. But the Pirates enter the campaign without a player who has thrown an inning in college since senior Priscilla Velasquez tossed one-and-two-thirds Feb. 8, 2009, in her only career appearance. On the other hand, East Carolina does welcome back 88.6 percent of its hits, 89.8 percent of the team's runs scored, 90.8 percent of runs batted in and all of its home runs from the 2011 campaign.

For the last two years, East Carolina relied heavily on the steady pitching arm of All-America Paisley, who exhausted her eligibility at the end of last season while Sutton left the program.

This year, freshmen Sarah Christian, Emma Mendoker and Courtney Smith are expected to shoulder the load in the circle.

Christian, from D.H. Conley High School in Greenville, was a four-time N.C. Softball Coaches Association 3A All-State selection. In her final campaign, she was named the North Carolina 3A-East Pitcher-of-the-Year and earned most valuable player honors at the state championship after helping the Vikings claim their first title by recording three victories and 25 strikeouts in 27 innings. She finished the season with a 0.69 earned run average, 188 whiffs, 71 hits allowed and 11 earned runs surrendered in 142 2/3 innings. As a junior, Christian was nearly as impressive, going 19-4 with 12 shutouts and 147 strikeouts.

Mendoker was selected as the ESPN RISE 2010-11 Gatorade Massachusetts Softball Player-of-the-Year after posting a 23-2 record, 0.17 earned run average and 300 strikeouts. The Amherst, Mass., native accumulated 1,002 strikeouts during her high school career as Amherst Regional High School lost only one regular-season game during her time with the program - a 2-0 setback to Agawam when she was a senior. Mendoker broke out as a junior with a 23-1 record, six no-hitters, a 0.21 ERA and 312 strikeouts in 165 innings. That year, she led the Hurricanes to the Western Massachusetts Division I title and Division I state semifinals.

Smith, from Yuba City, Calif., earned first-team all-area and All-Tri County League honors each year of her career. Following her senior season at River Valley High School, she was selected as the Tri-County Co-League Most Valuable Player and Appeal-Democrat All-Area Player-of-the-Year for posting a 0.92 earned run average and conference-best 166 strikeouts. She fanned at least 150 batters every year and guided River Valley to its first playoff win in any sport during the 2010 season. As a junior, she posted a 15-4 record with a 0.70 ERA and 198 strikeouts and was named to the Sacramento River Cats' All-City High School Team.

This year's pitching staff will be throwing to any of four catchers - junior Kai Clark, sophomores Rebecca Lee and Abby Wynne, and freshman Sara Pacioni. Clark was the team's primary catcher a year ago, starting there for 42 of the team's 62 games. This season when not behind the dish, Clark could experience action at third base, where she earned all-state honors in high school. In 2011, she paced the Pirates with 361 putouts and matched her personal best with seven runners caught stealing. Offensively, the Kapolei, Hawai'i, product tallied a career-high six doubles while recording five multiple-RBI and four multi-hit contests. Clark particularly excelled in the regular-season series with Tulsa, delivering the game-winning run in the first contest with bases-loaded walk and registering a personal-best three RBI in the final tilt.

Lee, a Hawai'i native from Mililani, proved to be one of the most versatile players on the squad last year, starting 15 games at catcher and 26 as the designated player. She led the Pirates with 14 sacrifice bunts (third most in Conference USA) and 12 stolen bases while ranking third in walks with 25. Behind the dish, Lee caught Toni Paisley's no-hitter versus Charleston Southern and established a personal best with 13 putouts during the contest. She found her groove at the plate during the Wilson/DeMarini Invitational in March, batting .625 and drawing five walks during the five contests. When not catching this season, Lee could play left field, right field or as the designated player.

 Pirate to Watch 

 Abby Wynne | So. | Catcher
 • Tallied first career base hit as a pinch hitter in the bottom of the seventh against Maryland
 • Drove in first career run with a bases-loaded walk against St. John's
 • Hit .300 during March   
 • After entering the game as a substitute, batted .316 with six hits and three RBI
 • Drove in a pair of runs with a ground-rule double at Marshall, sparking ECU's seven-run sixth inning


Wynne spent last year as the team's top substitute, appearing in 37 games and starting nine - six at catcher. She led the Pirates with 16 at-bats as a pinch hitter, registering a squad-best five hits in that role. The North Pitt High School product was also used a pinch runner eight times and scored a pair of runs. Wynne hit the first triple inside the ECU Softball Stadium, knocking the three-bagger against UNC Wilmington. At eventual national champion Arizona State, she delivered a pinch-hit double in the fifth inning.

Rounding out the list of potential catchers is Pacioni, who was a four-year starter for San Ramon Valley High School. She was a three-time All-East Bay Athletic League selection who served as a co-captain as a junior. The Danville, Calif., native was named a North Coast Section and California Interscholastic Federation Scholar as a freshman and sophomore. This season with ECU, she could garner additional playing time at third base.

Tomorrow, Part II of the softball preview will take a look at this year's infield and outfield.