Clarksville, Ark.- A youthful roster will be the prominent face of the University of the Ozarks softball team as the Lady Eagle program begins its eighth year on the diamond.
The Lady Eagles’ roster includes ten new players, all freshmen, and only two seniors. Ozarks lost a pair of All-Conference players, one of which was the school’s all-time hit leader, and six others to graduation. With only three upperclassmen, that type of youthfulness brings excitement to the program, but also presents unique challenges.
“We are young and there is new blood so there is a lot of excitement,” said head coach Elizabeth Caroscio, who begins her third year at Ozarks. “There will be freshman that will start. They don’t have the experience that the senior class had last season. At the same time, they are excited and are ready to make an impact right away. We are coming together as a team and that was an initial concern. The veterans have really taken them under their wings and into the flow of college softball.”
Ozarks will need to replace half of its pitching staff and run production in order to improve on last season’s 17-23 mark. Ozarks ended the 2007 campaign with a 7-17 mark and a fifth-place finish in the rigorous American Southwest Conference.
One of the strengths of the team, according to Caroscio, is the team’s offensive power. A number of freshman bring big bats to the lineup, but the offensive production begins with senior first baseman/designated player Chelsea Joslin. Joslin has been one of the premier offensive threats the past three seasons and is expected to continue to provide an offense punch. Joslin already owns a number of school records, including most career home runs (22), RBI (86) and total bases (195). The three-time All-Conference performer finished third in the ASC in home runs (10) and sixth in slugging percentage (.676) last season. She set a conference record last year when she hit three home runs in a game. She finished 2007 with a .343 average, 10 home runs and 28 RBI.
“Chelsea is our power hitter,” said Caroscio. “She is no doubt one of the top offensive players in the league. I expect her to step up and produce and I think she is willing to take that pressure. She is a player who thrives under pressure. She is ready to play and has been a big leader in the off-season. She will be surrounded by more hitters in the lineup and that will make her even stronger.”
Caroscio expects a number of players donning the Lady Eagle uniform for the first time to help at the plate.
“We will have more bats in the lineup than we’ve had in the past,” said Caroscio. “I think the overall team strength will be our offensive power. We have some strong girls and they have the ability to put the ball over the fence, but more so they have the ability to put the ball into play. Some of our freshmen read the ball well off the pitcher. I see a lot more doubles than home runs.”
With the potential to put runs on the board, Caroscio hopes the offense will take some of the pressure of off a young pitching staff. As the season progresses, however, a backbone of the team could be the depth in the circle.
“We have a young pitching staff, but we have more options in the circle and that is one of the team’s strengths,” said Caroscio. “We have three relievers and two starters, and each provides a little something different to the staff.”
Sophomore right-hander Stephany Henson is coming off a solid freshman campaign in which she finished seventh in the ASC in shutouts (3) and eighth in complete games (15). She led the team in ERA (3.49) and wins (10), while tying for the team-lead in strikeouts (57). She had a perfect game through six innings in a game against Hendrix College late in the season.
“Stephany really grew during the season and she is stronger now,” said Caroscio. “We relied on her a lot last season and we will look for her to lead us in the circle this season. She really has a good idea of mechanics, and has a good idea what pitch should be thrown in certain situations. She has great control of some pitches. But her best attribute is that she will do whatever we ask.”
In addition to Henson, the pitching rotation will include newcomers Brittany Thompson, Ashleigh Roberts, Katie Pitchford, Julie Wilkinson and Sarah Otteman. Each throw right-handed.
Thompson had a decorated high school career and will likely be a conference starter. Roberts, Pitchford, Wilkinson and Otteman will be relief-type pitchers for the Lady Eagles.
“Brittany and Stephany are similar pitchers,” said Caroscio. “Brittany has good control, and has a little more speed than Stephany. Brittany has some good movement, too. They both have the strength to go the whole game.”
“Ashleigh and Katie will come in on relief situations. Ashleigh will offer some depth and Julie will be a good control pitcher. Sarah could be a solid relief pitcher, too. She has good control on the mound. Her delivery is a little different and that will come into play.”
Playing behind a deeper pitching staff is a talented, but unproven defense.
Joslin played first base last season, while fellow senior Jessica Pianalto saw time in the middle infield. Pianalto started in 39 games, and provides a steady glove at either shortstop or second base. Sophomore Nicole Ashley is penciled in at third base. Ashley saw most of her playing time a year ago at shortstop. She collected 12 RBI and 20 hits in 37 games last season. Junior Danielle Dirks started in 24 games at shortstop, but will likely see time in the outfield. Dirks provides Ozarks with some power at the plate, having hit four home runs and recorded 17 doubles in her career. She hit .245 and knocked in 15 in 2007.
“Jessica takes control of the infield,” said Caroscio. “I see her as the quarterback there. She has good range. She could play shortstop and may see some time at second base. Cassie (Saorrono) and Ashleigh could play at second base, too. Danielle may platoon in the outfield and second. Nicole has done a great job in the off-season. Her lateral movement has really improved. I see her stepping in strong at third base. Chelsea will see some time at first base and we have a talented left-handed hitter behind her. I have toyed around with several different lineups.”
The outfield returns one starter. Junior Stacy Simpson started in all 40 games in center field and hit .308 with 44 hits, second most on the team. She also produced 23 runs and 18 RBI.
“We have Stacy back in center field,” said Caroscio. “She will lead the outfield. Danielle will be out there with her speed and arm strength. She can cover a lot of ground. Sarah has a good arm. Kaitlyn, Jessica (George), CharLee and Katie will share time in the outfield.”
“Defensively, we need to play behind our pitchers,” said Caroscio. “At times last season, we played back on our heels. Our defense needs to come out and shut our opponents down. We were close on several games last season and we really couldn’t put the nail in the coffin. Hopefully, we will have a new mindset and can shut the door.”
Behind the plate will likely be a freshman.
“The catcher position is up between two freshman who are working very hard,” said Caroscio. “When all is said and done, it will probably end up being the one who hits the ball better.”
There could be several different lineups early in the season, and finding the right combination could be a challenge. But, versatility is undoubtedly necessary in an ASC East division loaded with talent.
“I think we are versatile,” said Caroscio. “That makes my job somewhat easier, yet it makes it challenging to find the right combination. I have a lot of players that platoon, and it will come down to who is hitting the ball. It is just a matter of who is playing where. It might be a challenge because some will make freshman mistakes. We need to keep playing together and we need to keep the mindset of it doesn’t matter who gets the credit. I think our offense can get us the runs that the defense will need. Overall, this group expects to win.”