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Softball Team Making Strides

March 2, 2009
By cnp
Posted in Athletics

Clarksville, Ark.-It was an up and down season for the 2008 softball team, but one that saw the program make steps in the right direction, including winning games against two top-25 teams.

Ozarks, which returns six starters from last season’s 14-26 team, made strides during the 2008 campaign. The highlight of the 2008 season was no doubt going on the road and defeating No. 2 UT-Tyler, and then taking the Patriots to extra innings in a game two loss. Ozarks also defeated the No. 21 team in the nation during the 2008 season.

“We didn’t get the quantity of wins we wanted, but we got some quality wins,” said head coach Elizabeth Caroscio, who enters her fourth season at Ozarks. “The returners can build off that. It was a matter of rising to the challenge and we did that during stretches of the season. Last year they stepped up against Tyler and played near perfect softball.”

While the Lady Eagles made a step forward with those wins, Caroscio knows her team still must improve on closing out games. Ozarks lost six games by one run, and won only five road games.

“It was a combination of young players not understanding what they need to do to get the win and the fact that the league is getting better,” said Caroscio. “It comes down to mental toughness and executing.”

Ozarks ranked 11th in the American Southwest Conference in defense, something Caroscio and her staff focused on in the fall.

“Our focus this year is defense,” said Caroscio. “Our defense cost us some games a year ago. It is an offensive game in this conference and we know pitchers will get hit. We have to be able to run down the balls in the outfield and make plays. We have more speed and I think that will result in us being more defensively sound.”

Offensively, Ozarks must replace three All-Conference players, including Chelsea Joslin, who is the program leader in six career offensive categories. The Lady Eagles return nearly half of their hit and RBI production.

“We don’t have a lot of power,” said Caroscio. “We want to put the ball in play and use our speed. With our personnel, we will play more of a short game. As far as power, we have different players that can hit the big shot. It just comes down to consistency at the plate.”

RBI production is one of the key’s to success this season, according to Caroscio.

“We need to cash in the runners on base,” said Caroscio. “Our RBI production needs to improve. We had too many runners left on base last season. I think we wanted to hit the big ball last year and we need to stop worrying about that, and just focus on hitting the ball to move the runner. We know we have to get the runs across, it is just a matter of delivering when given the opportunity.”

The Lady Eagles will turn to five returning position starters, combined with an influx of freshmen for its offensive output. Sarah Otteman gives Ozarks a potent bat as the team’s top returning hitter. The utility player had an outstanding rookie season, hitting .402 with 24 RBI and three home runs en route to earning All-Conference honors. Otteman also saw time on the mound, owning the team’s top ERA (3.11) while collecting four saves.

“Sarah was a tough out at the plate,” said Caroscio. “Offensively, she is a great weapon because she has the power and she has the short game. She is a versatile player. She will play where the team needs her.”

Four-year starter Danielle Dirks returns for her senior campaign and is expected to continue her offensive prowess. Dirks batted .272 with 34 hits while driving in 14. She will see time in the outfield.

“Danielle stepped up in the outfield last year,” said Caroscio. “She will again be our leader out there. She can run down the gaps and has a strong arm.”

Sophomore infielder Cassie Saorrono is back after hitting .278 with 15 RBI and four homers. Julie Wilkinson, who saw time behind the plate and at third base as a freshman, hit .274 with 26 hits, including five doubles. Junior infielder Nicole Ashley started in 25 games a year ago and appears to be ready to have a breakout season, according to Caroscio. Ashley could see time at third and short.

“Cassie is another versatility player on our roster,” said Caroscio. “She can play the middle infield or outfield. Julie needs to hit above .300 for us. She may need to see some time behind the plate as well. Nicole is a player that will determine a lot. She plays softball with 110 percent effort. She has some fire in her. She has improved tremendously at the plate.”

All five of those returners provide options at a variety of positions, giving Caroscio the option to move players around.

“The best thing about this team is the versatility,” said Caroscio. “We are moving players around and seeing where they fit best. It is a matter of putting the pieces together. If someone can’t step up, the person next in line has the ability to take over and not miss a beat. We have some depth this season. Depth is one of our strengths. It is a nice problem to have – too many starters for the positions.”

In the circle, junior Stephany Henson is expected to be the pitching staff’s leader. The durable Henson led the team in innings pitched (115.1), complete games (8) and appearances (21).

“I think Stephany will be stronger this year,” said Caroscio. “She hit her spots and worked on her spins over the last year. She will be our leader in the circle. In the fall, our pitching staff really solidified and now understands they are a staff. Although we might lean on Stephany and Sarah, we have a staff. If someone is having an off day, we have others who can come in and help.”

Catching for the pitching staff will likely be Wilkinson and sophomore Emily Burns. Burns played in 21 games as a freshman.

Caroscio will have the luxury of choosing from a talented freshmen class to fill other spots on the field.

“Within the freshmen class there is a more constant talent pool,” said Caroscio. “They have more consistency in putting the ball in play. It is a class with some speed and they are hard workers. They are willing to do whatever it takes to win. They just want to play. They have really bought into the team concept. I don’t think we will have the roller coaster of a ride like last year.”

For certain, the Lady Eagles will again face some of the stiffest competition in the nation within the ASC, considered by many one of the best in NCAA III.

“The level of competition is getting more even which is making for better softball,” said Caroscio. “And as a whole, the conference is getting better. People don’t expect anything from us and that is what I am using to motivate the players.”