Written by: Eric Jackson
The Blazers open their 2014 softball season this weekend in Pensacola, Fla., with their eyes set on reclaiming the national championship title, and the expectations haven’t changed.
“I want a good start, a good middle, and a good finish,” nine-year Head Coach Thomas Macera said. “We don’t talk about a good start; we talk about winning every game we play. We’re here to win softball games. When we go out there, we approach every game the same.”
Macera, like usual, advises his players to focus on one game at a time, starting with Saturday’s season opener, which he says should be nothing but the first stepping stone toward their ultimate goal.
No.6 VSU begins the season in full swing in the West Florida Tournament. The Blazers open against Midwestern State, one of the nation’s top offensive teams (they recorded 86 home runs last season). The second game of the doubleheader on Sunday is against Southern Arkansas.
The Blazers comes into this year’s campaign with a chip on their shoulder after falling short to Armstrong Atlantic early in last season’s NCAA Division II Softball Championships.
With 12 new players on the squad, mastering the learning curve is imperative as the Blazers compete against their toughest opponents of the regular season in the first two weeks, which are followed by a rigorous conference schedule.
Despite having won a record five straight conference titles, coaches voted that VSU will finish second behind Alabama-Huntsville this season.
Before heading back south to Clearwater, Fla., for the Eckerd Tournament next weekend, the Blazers face Flager in the home opener Feb. 4 at Steel’s Diamond field.
VSU returns seven key contributors from last season including four seniors: All-Gulf South Conference honoree Shelby Altman, pitcher Brianna Hancock, and infielders Hannah Strickland and Karson King. Also returning is sophomore infielder Kiley Rusen, junior outfielder Fran Johnson and two-time Player of the Year recipient Courtney Albritton (second baseman).
As a sophomore, Albritton led last season’s squad in batting average (.417), home runs (20), and runs batted in (57).
Albritton, Altman and Hancock were selected to the 2014 preseason All-GSC team.
The departure of pitchers Hanna Lythberg (transferred to Winona State) and Kenzi Reed (graduated) this offseason was countered with the acquisition of Indian River State transfer Rebekah Kiser. The Blazers’ ace, Hancock, and sophomore Caitlyn Calhoun both return to the mound as well.
Kiser and freshman infielder Chelsea Canara were tabbed on the GSC top newcomers list as well.
While there is still doubt as to who will be starting in left field, the most daunting obstacle for the Blazers is replacing first team Academic All-District catcher Ashley Steinhilber. Steinhilber made the All-GSC softball second team last year.
Freshman catchers Morgan Butler and Kelly Gordon have been battling for the starting position all offseason. No decision has yet been made as to who will start.
“Steiny was a great catcher,” Macera said. “The catchers that we got will do well. Steiny sat her first year here; it took her a year to learn how to develop. This year we don’t have that luxury; we don’t have an older catcher, so those girls have to learn how to do it now.”
Butler is a Forsyth, Ga., native who had an impressive career at Mary Persons High. Gordon arrives to VSU from Geneva, Ill., where she too had a stellar multi-sport career at Geneva Community High.
“We’re ready to go if the game is tomorrow or next week,” Macera said. “You can only practice for so long until you finally have to go out there and produce or not. We’ll see what happens.”
This article was written by Eric Jackson.