Options, options, and more options.
As the start of the 2013 softball season draws near, Stetson head coach Frank Griffin has some tough decisions to make. With a talented 16-member squad including a pitching staff four players deep, plus a versatile defense with several players who can field a number of different positions, Griffin is not yet certain exactly how he is going to fill out his opening day line-up card.
“Actually I think about it a lot,” Griffin said. “When I go home I'll just think about it. I've got all these options. Friday I've got to make a decision. It is a good problem to have. I haven't experienced it much in my decades of coaching.”
Part of the dilemma stems from the arrival of a gifted group of newcomers - six freshmen and a junior college transfer, many of whom may have important roles right from the start. They have already blended nicely with the nine returners from last year’s squad that finished 26-22 overall and third in the Atlantic Sun tournament.
“The kids we have are very talented, perhaps the best recruiting class in my 23 years,” Griffin said. “However they are still young, so I expect some freshman mistakes, but I think they are going to step right in and add to the success of the season.”
With four pitchers on the roster, Stetson will have one of its deepest and most experienced pitching staffs in recent years. Juniors Meredith Owen and Sarah Read and sophomores Courtney Brandt and Taylor Cochran will lead the Hatters in the circle.
“Having a deep staff means if someone gets a hurt arm or a sprained ankle, it won't hurt the team as much,” Griffin said. “In past years, if one pitcher went down for a minor injury or something that just kept them out a week or two, it made a big difference in our season. I think with the depth that we have and with the way they have progressed, we are going to have good, steady pitching on the mound.”
Owen appeared in 34 of the team’s 48 games last season, and she led the squad in wins (15), innings pitched (187.1), and strikeouts (143). She picked up five shutouts on the season, including three in conference play, and also recorded two saves.
“Meredith continues to improve each year,” Griffin said. “She is a hard worker, has a great attitude, has lots of movement on her pitches, and every day she tries to get better.”
Brandt, meanwhile, earned Atlantic Sun all-freshman team honors after posting 11 wins and a 2.20 ERA her rookie season. She struck out 97 batters in 130.2 innings while making 24 starts in the circle. She picked up four shutouts, including a 1-0 victory over USC Upstate in the opening game of the Atlantic Sun tournament.
“Courtney is a real competitor,” Griffin said. “When she gets on the mound she takes it really seriously. She's always has that ultimate game face. She pitches her heart out every inning.”
Cochran made just one appearance last season while working her way back from an injury, but she made several strong outings in the fall and is competing for more time in the circle this spring.
“Taylor is probably the most improved pitcher from last year,” Griffin said. “She has good movement on the ball, her control is coming around, and her work ethic is really good. I'm really proud of her.”
Read transferred to Stetson from Indian River State College, where she was named the FSCAA Southern Conference Pitcher of the Year in 2011. She also earned first team All-State, second-team All-Region, and second team All-America honors after going 28-4 with a 1.82 ERA her freshman season. Her sophomore season was cut short due to injury.
“It was in question whether Sarah would be able to come back from her surgery, but I believe she is 100% and she continues to improve every day,” Griffin said. “She likes to battle in the circle, and she also likes to hit like Meredith and Courtney.”
Indeed Owen and Brandt were two of the team’s top hitters as well in 2012. Owen batted a team-high .311 while hitting six home runs and driving in 25. Brandt batted .273 and led the team with eight home runs and 27 RBI. When one was pitching last year the other was often the designated player, but with Read potentially in the mix as well, Griffin might have more to consider when choosing his ‘dp’ this year.
“We do have some alternatives,” Griffin said. “Courtney can play the outfield and she does a good job out there. Obviously one of them can ‘dp’. We might also have another good hitter that can ‘dp’ that is not a pitcher.”
Senior co-captains Jordan Cleghorn and Chelsea Whalley each return for their fourth seasons with the Hatters. Last year Cleghorn batted .246 with three home runs and 14 RBI, while starting 35 games behind the plate. She also saw some innings at second base, third base, and shortstop.
“Jordan hit the ball exceptionally well in the fall, and has always done a great job behind the plate,” Griffin said. “She can also play or first or third or second, or even outfield. She is showing good leadership as a captain this year, and I think she'll have a good season.”
Whalley started all 48 games for the Hatters last season, 46 of those coming in right field. She batted .200 with a home run and four RBI, and she stole a career best six bases.
“Whalley can play any position in the outfield and just has a cannon for an arm,” Griffin said. “She is working hard on her offense, and I'm looking forward to her having a good season as well.”
Centerfielder Chrissy Morello joins Owen and Read as the three juniors on the team. A two-time second-team all-conference performer, Morello batted .295 with 43 hits, 25 runs and 21 stolen bases last year. Her 49 career steals ranks eighth in school history.
“First thing I think of with Chrissy is offense, even though she can chase them down in the outfield and lay herself out to get them,” Griffin said. “She brings a lot of trouble to opponents because she can bunt, slap, and hit for power.”
Stetson’s sophomore class includes Demi Meza, Allison Sutherlin, Mallory Brooks, Brandt, and Cochran. As a freshman Meza made 38 starts at third base and eight more at shortstop while batting .254 with four home runs and 21 RBI.
“Demi has continued to improve her offense, and her defense has always been there,” Griffin said. “She has above average speed, has a great attitude, and is a pleasure to have on the team. I anticipate she will play some at both third and short, and then settle into one as the season progresses.”
Sutherlin played in 17 games as a freshman, making 10 starts behind the plate. She batted .310 with five runs scored and five RBI.
“I continue to say Allison is the hardest working player on the team," Griffin said. "She continues to improve, has a tremendous attitude, and is just a pleasure to coach and be around all the time."
Brooks appeared in seven games last season, saw action at third base, and scored her first career run in the Atlantic Sun tournament.
“Mallory is perhaps the most improved player on the team,” Griffin said. “She is working at different positions right now, and seems to be having fun at it. She has got a great attitude.”
The six freshmen joining the Hatters this season are Kayla Drury (infield), Jessica Griffin (catcher/outfield), Morgan Hatch (infield), Brittany Hawn (infield), Molly Shasteen (infield/outfield), and K.K. Woolington (outfield).
Here are coach Griffin’s comments on each:
“Kayla is a local talent, she has good hands on the infield and she is quick. She is recovering from knee surgery and I think she almost back to 100%. She continues to improve at the plate. I think as she gets stronger she's only going to get better, and she's working really hard in the weight room.”
“Jessica has one of the best swings on the team. She has really been schooled properly as a youngster as to how to swing the bat. I think she is going to be one of the best hitters to come out of Stetson in long time when it is all said and done.”
“Morgan is a power hitter with a great attitude. She also continues to improve defensively. I think she is going to hit a lot of long balls in her time here at Stetson.”
“Brittany has amazing instincts on what to do and when. She is quick as a cat, she's going to be a real threat at stealing bases, and she's good with the bat. She's the first true switch hitter that I've coached. She can hit with power or bunt from both sides of the plate. Defensively she can play second, short, or third.”
“Molly has good speed, she's playing both infield and outfield for us right now, and she's showing some good results in the outfield.”
“K.K. is a tremendous athlete, she is very strong, has well above average speed, and has a tremendous attitude. Her swing is probably the most improved over the course of just this many months that I've seen. She's made tremendous changes for the better.”
Four non-conference tournaments, 36 home games, and a brand new conference format highlight the 2013 schedule. Unlike past seasons where A-Sun opponents faced each other in a single doubleheader, this year teams will play a two-day, three game series.
“I'm looking forward to it because it eliminates the rain date,” Griffin said. “On long trips, we are able to fly now instead of bus, because that 12-14 hour bus trip takes a lot out of a ball team. Playing three games in a weekend instead of four also takes a load off the pitchers and the rest of the players as well. The athletic directors in the conference made a good decision in going with a three-game, two-day series.”
The Atlantic Sun tournament moves from Spartanburg, S.C., to Nashville, Tenn. where Lipscomb will serve as a first-time host. The Hatters will be looking to make another run at the league title and return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007.
The season begins this weekend with the Stetson Lead-Off Classic. The Hatters will host Michigan State at 4 p.m. and South Carolina at 6:30 p.m. on Friday. GoHatters.com will have a weekend preview on Thursday.