2010 Softball Outlook Part I
Feb. 9, 2010
GREENVILLE, N.C. - Eight seniors plus the Conference USA Pitcher-of-the-Year plus an experienced coaching staff is the formula the East Carolina softball team hopes will equal a league title and a return trip to the NCAA Softball Tournament after narrowly missing out on the event in 2009.
Ten letterwinners and seven starters, including three Preseason All-Conference USA Team members, return from last season's squad that went 40-15 and recorded a program-best 19 C-USA victories. It was the fifth time in the past six years ECU reached the 40-victory plateau.
Directing the Pirates in 2010 will be 14th-year head coach Tracey Kee, who is in her 24th 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. All told, her impact on ECU softball has been immense. Just one win shy of 575 in her career, Kee has been a part of 892 of the Pirates' 971 victories as a player, assistant coach or head coach since East Carolina fastpitch softball began in 1984.
Kee will be aided in the dugout again by associate head coach Natalie Kozlowski, returning for her 10th season with the program, and graduate assistant coach Keli Harrell, who is entering her third year.
Kozlowski is a proven offensive guru as her squads dominate the East Carolina record books, occupying first or second-place in 10 of 11 categories. She will look to rejuvenate a Pirate offense in 2010 that struggled to find its power hitting at times a year ago. ECU did excel in the short game last season, however, ranking first in C-USA in sacrifice bunts (63), second in stolen bases (96) and tied for third in sacrifice flies (11).
Harrell has shown herself invaluable to the Pirates' pitching staff. In 2009, she guided Toni Paisley to the Conference USA Pitcher-of-the-Year award after Paisley was named the league's pitcher-of-the-week a record-tying seven times. Under Harrell's direction, Paisley and the rest of the 2009 staff combined to finish at the top of the league in nine statistical categories, including earned run average (1.51), fewest runs allowed (100) and fewest hits allowed (276).
If the Pirates are to contend for the C-USA crown and their first conference championship since winning three consecutive Big South titles from 1997-99, they will also rely on their consistent defense. Last season was the third straight in which East Carolina finished in the top three nationally in fielding percentage. ECU's .9775 fielding percentage led the conference and was the third-best mark in the nation, trailing only Women's College World Series participant Georgia (.9805) and NCAA Regional host Tennessee (.9776).
The Pirates face eight squads that made NCAA Regional appearances a year ago, including Washington, the 2009 WCWS Champion and preseason No. 1 ranked team, and Florida, the national runner-up. In addition, ECU plays at California, which lost to Florida in the NCAA Super Regionals last spring and is ranked in the top 12 of the preseason polls. East Carolina opens the 2009 campaign this weekend at the USF DeMarini Tournament.
The Pirates play Illinois State and Florida Gulf Coast Friday before contests against Canisius, a 2009 regional participant, South Florida and Long Island wrap up the event.
ECU returns to the Sunshine State next weekend for the Lipton Invitational, hosted by Florida. While in Gainesville, the Pirates face the Gators twice, C-USA member Marshall, NCAA Regional participant Campbell and Kansas.
The first home games follow as East Carolina hosts the Pirate Classic (Feb. 26-28), welcoming Delaware, Towson, Morehead State and Penn State for the three-day event.
Before beginning C-USA action, ECU will spend its spring break playing in Hawai'i and California. At the Bank of Hawai'i Invitational Tournament (March 5-7), the Pirates play Washington, Seattle, the host Rainbow Wahine and two other games with the opponents determined by how East Carolina fares in its first three contests.
Following the Invitational, the Pirates stop at Fresno State, another preseason top 25 team, for a doubleheader March 10. East Carolina concludes the long road trip with the Cal Round Robin, facing California, Cal State Fullerton, a 2009 NCAA Regional participant, and UC Davis.
Conference USA play opens March 20, when the Pirates travel to defending regular season and tournament champion Tulsa for a three-game series. Other league road stops for the Pirates include UCF (April 2-3), Houston (April 24-25) and the C-USA finale at Memphis (May 8-9).
ECU welcomes C-USA members Marshall (March 27-28), UAB (April 10-11), UTEP (April 17-18) and Southern Miss (May 1-2) to Greenville.
In-state rivals also dot the schedule as the Pirates play doubleheaders at UNC Greensboro (March 30) and N.C. State (April 14). UNC Wilmington travels to Greenville for a twin bill April 20 and Elon visits May 6.
A year ago, Paisley led C-USA in wins (30), innings pitched (270.2), earned run average (1.22), opponents' batting average (.177), batters struck out (297) and batters struck out looking (92). She also tied for the league lead in saves with three. Nationally, Paisley finished the year ranked seventh in wins, 11th in ERA, 16th in strikeouts, 26th in saves and 30th in shutouts (9).
Just as important as Paisley to the team's success in 2010 will be sophomore hurler Faith Sutton, a transfer from the University of North Carolina. Sutton went 5-2 for the Tar Heels in 2008 while starting five games and appearing in seven more. She pitched a total of 34 innings and struck out 50 batters. Sutton had to sit out last season due to NCAA transfer rules, but is now ready to return to the circle. Before her collegiate career, the North Pitt High School graduate was a two-time North Carolina High School Athletic Association 2A East Pitcher-of-the-Year selection.
Backstopping this year's staff will be senior Tiffany Shaw or freshman Kai Clark. Shaw started a career-high 48 games at catcher a season ago, leading the squad with 327 putouts, the fifth-highest total in the league. She established or tied single-game and season career highs in hits, runs batted in, stolen bases and assists during her first year of extensive playing time. Clark was a four-time all-state and all-Oahu Interscholastic Association selection for Kapolei High School in Kapolei, Hawai'i.
Tomorrow, Part II of the softball preview will take a look at this year's infield and outfield.