BLACKSBURG - After winning two consecutive ACC Championships and earning a berth in the 2008 Women’s College World Series, head coach Scot Thomas will have a lot of holes to fill and new faces will be stepping in to try and keep the momentum rolling for the program. Gone are four starters from last year’s squad, including the national player of the year, a three-year starter behind the plate and a versatile multi-year starter in the outfield. But with six bats returning from last year’s starting lineup at the WCWS and an influx of talented young players, the nucleus is still there for another run at the postseason.
The Hokies, who went 49-19 last year, will open their season this weekend at the Chattanooga Challenge. Tech will open with Maine on Friday at 12:30 p.m., at Frost Stadium and then will play Troy at adjacent Hargraves Field at 5:30 p.m. On Saturday, the Hokies will play two games at Frost Stadium, first at 10:30 a.m., against Tennessee Tech and then at 1 o’clock against the host Mocs. On Sunday, Tech will look to thwart Chattanooga again at 1 p.m., at Frost Stadium to wrap up the weekend.
Live stats for all five games will be available on hokiesports.com.
Below is an in-depth look at the Hokies as they open defense of their back-to-back ACC titles. Tech was picked in the preseason ACC poll as voted on by the coaches. North Carolina was voted first with seven first-place votes, followed by Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, NC State, Florida State, Maryland, Virginia with one first-place vote and Boston College.
First-team all-region honoree Charisse Mariconda returns for her senior year, as do two other starters from the infield – seniors Erin Ota and Beth Walker – making this a veteran group.
Mariconda, who led the Hokies at the plate with a .340 average last year, is back as one of the best third basemen in the region. She is lightning quick at the hot corner and will be asked to step up her leadership this year. Backing her up will be walk-on Alicia Field, who saw action in 10 games last year and is solid in the field.
Ota, who has started the past three seasons at second base, will get a look at shortstop this season. At just 5’2”, she doesn’t have the prototypical size for the position, but her reflexes and savvy make her a strong candidate for the spot. Freshman Kristen Froehlich will also work here and the two could swap at second base and shortstop until things are decided. Both will be in the lineup regardless. Freshman walk-on Marra Hvozdovic has proven to be quite versatile as she’s excelled in the outfield and is working at shortstop as well to give Tech some depth.
Walker and Kim Jalm are long-ball threats that will battle for the spot at first base, along with freshman Kristin Graham, who also pitches. Walker and Jalm are seniors who are looking to contribute in any way possible.
“Our infield has some veterans with Charisse, Erin, Beth and Kim in there,” Thomas said. “We may be at some different spots, but I feel good about the game experience these kids have. They’ve played the game at the highest level and we’re blessed to have their skills behind such a young pitching staff.”
Five strong players make up the outfield for this year, which could end up being the strength of the Hokies. Jessica Everhart enters her fourth year as a starter, but will make the move to left field from center field. Hvozdovic was a pleasant surprise in the fall and will provide solid depth at all three positions. Her hitting has come along in the preseason and she is pushing hard for playing time somewhere.
“With a lot of off-speed pitching for us this year, we think we’ll have a lot balls hit to left field and with Jess’ experience and skills, we feel she’ll be better utilized in left,” said associate head coach and outfield coach Al Brauns.
Transfer Richelle McGarva enrolled at Tech in January after coming in from junior college and could be an impact player in center field. She has great speed and skills in the field, but also provides a good bat in the lineup. Jenna Rhodes will back up McGarva, but will be in the lineup once again as the designated player. She was a pain for the opposition on the base paths, stealing a school-record 41 bases last year while hitting .304.
In right field, Whitney Davis had an excellent fall and continues to hold down that spot. She has one of the strongest arms on the team and continues to improve at the plate.
“We have a lot of experience and good speed at all three positions,” Brauns said. “We should have a solid year, defensively, in the outfield. All five of these players bring positives and it’s not a stretch to say this could be the best outfield in the program’s history if they all have the kind of year they’re capable of.”
The main cogs in last year’s battery are gone and new pitching coach Barb Sherwood will be starting basically from scratch. Angela Tincher and Kelsey Hoffman threw and caught just about every pitch, respectively, down the stretch last year and now it will be up to a new cast to continue the excellence established by those two.
Kenzie Roark leads the way in the circle. After a solid freshman year, but one in which she threw just 58.0 innings, she has bought into Sherwood’s philosophies and is coming off an excellent fall season. As a sophomore, she is the veteran of the group and will be counted on for strong innings this year.
A pair of freshmen – Abbie Rexrode and Kristin Graham – will be the only other pitchers on the staff, as the Hokies will use a “by committee” approach this year. Rexrode is still adjusting to the college game, but has a good mix of pitches and will contribute heavily this spring. Graham missed a good part of the fall with an injury, but the coaching staff is hopeful she can work her way back into the circle. The Georgia product is a good complement to Roark and Rexrode and at 6-feet-tall, she can be an imposing presence in the circle. Heather Lowry will miss the season after having “Tommy John” surgery this past fall. There’s a possibility she could be used at the plate or on the bases, but will not pitch this year.
“I’m excited because a lot of times when you have a new pitching staff, they are eager and hungry,” Sherwood said. “This group is exactly that and I think we can be pretty successful this year. All three of them continue to get better every day and if they continue to do that, we have a chance to surprise some people this year.”
Tech will rely on two catchers this year to handle the staff. Freshman Kelsey Hensel and junior Amber Walker will battle throughout the preseason and even throughout the year for playing time.
“Both Amber and Kelsey are really hard workers and have great attitudes,” Sherwood said. “They do the extra things needed to make us better and they work well with the pitchers. It’ll be an open competition for the job and one of them is going to have to step up and take control.”
Tech will play in several tournaments before jumping into ACC play come mid-March. The Hokies will open the season with stops in Chattanooga, Atlanta and Myrtle Beach before playing in the always-tough NFCA Leadoff Classic and USF Under Armour Invitational. Before the conference schedule kicks off, they will play numerous 2008 NCAA Tournament teams such as Michigan, Alabama, USF, Lehigh, Tennessee Tech, Chattanooga, Missouri and DePaul.
“This is a challenging schedule, but it’ll help us as the season goes along,” Thomas said. “We may take some lumps early, but I hope the early part of our season will make us better heading into the second half of the season. From there, I think the ACC is pretty wide open and with the tournament being single elimination this year, it’s anyone’s for the taking.”
With a young staff replacing the national player of the year from 2008, the Tech offense will be called upon to score more runs this season and the defense will be important behind the pitchers.
“I think from an offensive standpoint, people are going to be surprised,” Thomas said. “For one, we have some quality people who can put some runs on the board. I think there will also be some more urgency for runs, which is going to help us. The past three or four years, the urgency hasn’t been there and we would sit on scoring a run or two and let Angela take it from there.
“This is going to be a fun team to watch,” Thomas added. “The biggest thing we have to do is mentally stay tough. If a base hit gets through, we can’t get down on ourselves. With the veterans we have out there, we should be able to do that. But it’s going to be a fun game to watch. We may not see the strikeout totals we have in the past, but we’re going to be putting the bat on the ball better, we’re going to continue to be aggressive on the base paths, we’re going to have to field the ball well and we’re going to be doing some other things to make it an exciting game.”
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