GREENEVILLE, Tenn. --- In 2016, the Tusculum College softball team experienced two seasons in one. A 12-5 start that featured excellent pitching, timely hitting and solid defense, followed by a frustrating stretch in March where every swing, throw and bounce seemed to go against the Pioneers.
With last year's memories filed away, a fresh mindset is just what the Pioneers need as they prepare to open their 2017 season on the road this weekend in Georgia. Tusculum faces Georgia Southwestern State University in a doubleheader Saturday afternoon, followed by two games on Sunday at Clark Atlanta.
Head coach Julie Huebner begins her fifth season with nine starting position players returning, along with all three of the team's pitchers from a year ago. Huebner, who is in her seventh season overall with the program, became the third coach in Tusculum history to reach 100 career wins last season, and brings a 104-95 overall record into the 2017 campaign.
Last year's Pioneer squad set a school single-season record with 107 stolen bases, breaking the mark of 97 that had stood since 1992. Despite losing three of the top four base stealers to graduation, who combined for 52 of the 107 steals, Huebner believes that this team has more speed from top to bottom thanks to the addition of a large freshman class. She also anticipates improvement to the team's defense that will allow the pitching staff to pitch to contact with greater confidence.
Sophomore Taylor Battle is the lone player on the Pioneer roster who played a game in the outfield for the team last season. She appeared in all 52 games for the Pioneers as a freshman, making 42 of her 49 starts in left field. The Chattanooga native hit .288 with seven runs batted in and 24 runs scored. Battle stole 29 bases in 33 attempts to lead the South Atlantic Conference, and had 11 multi-hit games.
Fellow sophomore Morgan Mahaffey has been moved to the outfield after making a team-high 27 starts at second base last season. Mahaffey, a native of Belmont, North Carolina, appeared in 39 games overall and hit .191 with seven runs batted in and four stolen bases in as many attempts.
Senior Robin Stoner will also be a factor in the revised outfield lineup. Stoner began last season as the Pioneers' shortstop and made 28 starts before moving to first base for the final 23 games. Stoner led the Pioneers with three home runs and 35 runs batted in last season, and hit .295 with 19 runs scored and eight stolen bases. For her career, the native of Pleasant Garden, North Carolina is batting .286 with five home runs, 50 runs batted in and 33 runs scored in 100 games.
Sophomore Emily White from Milford, Michigan saw action in 21 games last season for the Pioneers, making 19 appearances as a pinch-runner and scoring seven runs. Also in the mix for a role in the outfield is freshman Bailey Kennedy, a right-handed hitting native of Chattanooga.
Sophomore Emily Hester is back at first base this season after shifting third base in midseason last year. Despite the move, Hester continued to have a solid freshman season, hitting .253 with a team-high nine doubles, a home run and 28 runs batted in. Hester, a native of Kings Mountain, North Carolina, also led the team with 13 walks and four sacrifice flies, and had just one error in 194 chances at first base.
Junior Bailey Culler has the inside track to start at second base after sharing the position a year ago. Culler made 15 starts at second base and 21 at third base, finishing the year batting .224 with seven doubles, six runs batted in and six runs scored. The Mount Airy, North Carolina product is a career .230 hitter with four home runs and 21 runs batted in for the Pioneers in 81 games.
At third base, sophomore transfer Michelle Miller and freshman Delaney Guerrero will give the Pioneers much-needed depth. Miller appeared in nine games last season at Boise State and went 2-for-4 with four runs scored, while the Meridian, Idaho native handled seven chances in the field without an error. Guerrero comes to Tusculum from Elgin, South Carolina where she hit .525 as a senior and .500 as a junior and was a two-time All-Region honoree at Lugoff-Elgin High School.
Several candidates for the shortstop position could also find their way into the lineup in utility roles. Senior Morgan Ward is the incumbent at short, having made 24 starts last season and batted .228 with 23 hits, 11 walks and four runs scored. Ward, a native of Shelbyville, Tennessee, made her Pioneer debut last season after transferring from Columbia State CC.
Freshmen Taylor Johnson and Sammie West are also expected to compete for playing time at shortstop for the Pioneers. Johnson, who could also see innings as a pitcher, hit .548 with nine home runs and 43 runs batted in at Independence High School in Spring Hill, Tennessee. West graduated from Maiden High School in North Carolina and was a four-time All-County honoree with a .475 career average with 52 runs batted in and 66 runs scored.
Senior Treslyn Reese will look to bounce back to the form of her sophomore season, when she clubbed nine home runs and drove in 34 runs. Last season, the Auburn, Alabama native started 25 games behind the plate and had 13 hits, including a home run, and knocked in six runs.
Senior Rachel Wisner will also see time behind the plate after starting the other 27 games a year ago, and batting .188 with a home run and six runs batted in. Wisner, a native of Olney, Illinois, did not commit an error in 103 chances behind the dish. Freshman Shelby Griffin could also see time behind the plate after earning All-Region honors at Flowery Branch High School in Buford, Georgia, as could fellow freshman Taylor Leatherman out of West Lincoln High School in Lincolnton, North Carolina.
Senior Jenna Restivo started a team-high 29 games as the designated player and batted .270 with a home run and 16 runs batted in last season. Restivo, who hails from Alpharetta, Georgia, also drew 10 walks and had five multi-hit games among her 24 hits, which included seven doubles.
Freshman Allison Pate, who was projected to be a pitching contributor for the Pioneers, is unable to throw due to injury but could see time in the batter's box as a pinch-hitter. Pate was an All-State and All-Conference selection at Edgar T. Beddingfield High School in Wilson, North Carolina.
The trio of senior Eliza Davis, junior Cayla Cecil and sophomore Taylor Plemons threw every pitch for the Pioneers last season, and will again be relied on for the majority of the team's innings in 2017.
Davis went 11-16 with a 4.20 earned run average last season, tying a career high with 12 complete games and tossing a pair of shutouts. The righthander from Lexington, North Carolina also set career highs for innings pitched (146 2/3) and strikeouts (55) and finished last season with three consecutive complete games, including a 3-0 win over eventual SAC Tournament champion Catawba in the season finale.
Davis has a career 27-31 record in 74 career appearances (55 starts) for the Pioneers, with a 3.86 earned run average and 130 strikeouts in 341 1/3 innings of work. Davis has also thrown 31 complete games in her first three seasons.
Cecil made 18 starts last season (10 complete games) and went 8-6 with a 3.28 earned run average. The righthander from High Point, North Carolina tossed 123 2/3 innings and allowed just three home runs, while striking out 57 batters. In her career, Cecil is 10-8 with a 3.84 earned run average and 77 strikeouts in 176 2/3 innings spanning 44 appearances (24 starts).
Plemons toed the rubber 21 times as a rookie, making 11 starts, and finished with a 2-9 record in 66 1/3 innings of work. The righthander from Knoxville struck out 28 batters and picked up victories over Clark Atlanta (9-0 on Feb. 7) and Virginia-Wise in relief (10-9 on March 3).
The Pioneers play their first 12 games on the road before opening at Red Edmonds Field against Lees-McRae on Saturday, Feb. 18. Tusculum's conference opener will be Saturday, March 18 at Lenoir-Rhyne, and the Pioneers will play 22 SAC games before wrapping up the regular season on Saturday, April 22 at Catawba. The SAC Tournament will be played the following weekend at Byerly Park in Hartsville, South Carolina, with the top eight teams in the conference standings earning a spot in the tourney.