By Jim O'Hara
ROME -- They would not have wanted it any other way.
When the Shorter softball team hits the diamond this weekend to open the 2013 season, the Lady Hawks fully understand that the program's first-ever national championship secured a year ago in the final go-around as an NAIA member, won't carry a lot of weight over the next few months.
This time around the Lady Hawks will begin their inaugural NCAA Division II season pitted against arguably the toughest conference in the nation, the Gulf South Conference that boasts a defending national champion of its own.
"This is definitely the toughest schedule in the history of the softball program and we are not taking it lightly," head coach Al Thomas, who led the Lady Hawks to the NAIA national title and a 53-11 record last year, said about the GSC that has seen two teams reach the Division II championship game the last four years with Valdosta State winning the title in 2012.
"Every team in this conference is a top team," the coach said, pointing out that Valdosta and Alabama-Huntsville have represented the conference in the NCAA title game the past four years and last season was joined by GSC foe West Alabama in the tournament field. "If you don't bring your 'A-game' you'll get beat badly."
Not surprisingly, the Lady Hawks will be making sure that they hit the ground running – and hitting and pitching – right off the bat when Shorter uses the opening weekends of the new season gearing up for what is ahead of them.
This Saturday and Sunday in Savannah, the Lady Hawks go up against a pair of non-conference Division II powers – host Armstrong Atlantic and Mars Hill – in back-to-back doubleheaders over the two-day period, then on Feb. 22 heads to Florence, Ala., for a three-day, six-game appearance in an invitational hosted by GSC member North Alabama.
Those games set the stage for Shorter's Gulf South debut that takes place when the Lady Hawks visit conference foes Christian Brothers on March 2 and Delta State on March 3, two games that signal the start of a long run of GSC battles – Shorter's home opener comes March 6 against UAH – that is only interrupted by two non-conference games.
And those two contests are by far not easy as Shorter will play home-and-home doubleheaders against former Southern States Athletic Conference and NAIA softball power Lee, which is in their final season as an NAIA team and will join the GSC next year.
"We're not going to sneak up on anybody. I believe every team will want to beat us as bad as they can," said Thomas, adding that Shorter's quick success thus far in the GSC in other sports has raised the red flag for the conference's other teams. "I hope we can keep up with our other teams here. They've done an outstanding job."
That said there's every indication that this year's Lady Hawks are capable of accomplishing something outstanding in their own right thanks to the return of several key players from last year's national championship team that will be joined by a solid core of newcomers who add to the arsenal.
Topping the list of veterans that are back is junior Jackie Castaneda of Sharpsburg, who turned in a record-setting year last season when she was named the 2012 Southern States Athletic Conference Player of the Year and was an NAIA All-American after leading the conference with a school-record .463 batting average.
Slated to make a position change and start at third base, Castaneda also led the team runs (68), home runs (13) and stolen bases (18 for 18), drove in 39 runs and set the Shorter record for longest hitting streak by recording a hit in 16 consecutive games from March 16 to April 7.
Castaneda, however, is not alone when it comes to the kinds of experience the Lady Hawks have back.
Three seniors are poised to close out their career in winning fashion and a junior returns behind the plate to handle what may be the deepest and most deadly pitching staff Shorter has ever had.
Senior outfielder Amanda Dailey of Trussville, Ala., is back to roam the outfield where she was an All-SSAC First Team pick after hitting .367 with 15 doubles and 38 RBI; senior Bre Johnson of Calhoun, who played third base last year, will concentrate solely on being the Lady Hawks' designated player and improve on the already strong offensive numbers she put up in 2012 hitting .309 and drove in 44 runs; senior Whitney Hood of Moulton, Ala., is back at first base having hit .313 with 44 RBI a year ago; and junior catcher Sarah Corn of Decatur, Ala., who hit .342 last season, is behind the mask again and may be the most improved player from last year's team.
For added measure, the Lady Hawks will be able to draw from five more players who saw action for the team last season: seniors Courtney Bailey of Huntsville, Ala., and Jessica Bowman of Rainsville, Ala.; juniors Kellee Stone of Rockmart and Kristen Wright of Hazel Green, Ala.; and sophomores Gracie Ayers of Ranburne, Ala., and Brooke Crawford of Pisgah, Ala.
"We do have a good nucleus back but hitting will be a key to our success," said Thomas. "We have to strike the ball with authority and our defense is much improved."
"What we do know," he said, "is that pitching is certainly a strength for us."
What is scary is that the Lady Hawks' mound corps may be even stronger that last year and it's certainly much deeper as Shorter has four proven hurlers back.
Sophomore pitcher Maddie Bray of Hixson, Tenn., will toe the rubber again following a remarkable start to her career at Shorter when as a freshman last year was named to the All-SSAC First Team and was the 2012 SSAC Co-Freshman of the Year after posting a 19-5 record with a 1.07 ERA and 136 strikeouts.
Junior Kristen Little boasts postseason honors on her resume as well as she returns, having been an SSAC All-East Division Team selection a year ago when she was 13-3 with a 1.27 ERA and 127 strikeouts; junior Katie Kiser of Rockmart is armed and ready after giving the team a 7-1 mark with five saves in 2012; and sophomore pitcher Kayla Byrom of Bogart is coming off a season in which she was 8-2 with a stingy 1.05 ERA.
The icing on the Lady Hawks' pitching cake, however, is the addition of junior transfer Christina Ezell of Senoia, who is poised to start season at the top of the rotation and for good reason. Last year at Georgia Perimeter, Ezell was a national junior college first team All-American after leading the nation in strikeouts – fanning 291 batters in just 183 innings – and had a 0.77 ERA.
"As we play our first six or seven games we're hoping we will see a pattern develop," Thomas said about the pitchers. "They're all going to have a specific role and embrace that established role."
Ezell won't be the only newest Lady Hawk who will be counted on right away. Included among the list of newcomers with the team this year are two transfers and two freshmen who are expected to break into the starting lineup.
Junior transfer Felicia Morris of Hiram, who came to Shorter from Southern Union, appears headed to see action at second base; junior transfer Kayla Cooper of McDonough, who played at Georgia Military, is slated to step in while playing center field; freshman Kendall Johnson of Chickamauga, a former standout at Gordon-Lee, has found a home at shortstop; and freshman Janell Echols, a prep star out of Rockmart High, joins the Lady Hawks in the outfield.
"I think they understand what is ahead of us," said Thomas, pointing out that while the Lady Hawks are ineligible for GSC and NCAA postseason play are shooting for National Christian College Athletic Association playoff action. "But I think that when we start playing our conference games they'll have a clearer vision of what it will take."