SKYHAWK SOFTBALL LOOKS FOR LEADERSHIP TO PAVE WAY TO OVC CHAMPIONSHIP
February 3, 2017
2017 Softball Media Guide
The University of Tennessee at Martin softball team enters its 16th season under the direction of head coach Donley Canary with an experienced squad infused with depth and competition at several positions to provide championship aspirations.
The Skyhawks enter the season looking to take another step in its stride towards the program’s first conference title since 2012 after posting a 30-26 record last year despite playing with an inexperience squad which was comprised primarily of underclassmen. With the calendar flipping to 2017, UT Martin has seen its previous inexperience transition into a balanced and competitive squad which features nine returning starters on offense and one of the Ohio Valley Conference’s top pitching aces returning to the circle.
“Last season we saw some highs and lows because we were forced to play so many freshman,” said Canary. “While that was an obstacle then, it has proved to be a positive for us in the long run because we feel like we have a number of strong classes. We feel like we have a strong group of seniors, dedicated juniors and mature sophomores which you feel confident in their production. When you combine that with a handful of freshman and a couple of key transfers, we feel that we can do some good things this season.”
Looking for leadership on this Skyhawk team will not be hard to find when you consider the return of three four-year seniors to the fold in Carly Gonzales, Renate Meckl and Brooke Kennedy. Not only is the group seen as leaders by the coaching staff – serving as an extension of the staff on the field and within the locker room – but the players themselves voted Gonzales, Meckl and junior catcher Aeron Smith to serve as team captains.
“When I first started coaching, I thought it was all about talent because it wins out, but it is really about leadership,” said Canary. “After 25 years of coaching, I know that player leadership is so important in having a strong program. In the past I haven’t elected captains, but with such a young team I thought it would be important to have the girls vote and these were nearly unanimous.”
Gonzales is no stranger to headlines dating back to her freshman season when she was named OVC Freshman of the Year. Since then the centerfielder has moved herself into the conversation of some of the program’s all-time greats with a career batting average of .347 while tallying 156 hits, 74 RBIs and 47 stolen bases. Just last season alone she picked up her second All-OVC honor after ranking amongst league leaders with a .372 batting average, 61 hits and 22 stolen bases.
Meckl enters her senior year having served as the team’s primary starter at catcher for the past three seasons. Meckl has started in 118 games throughout her career while posting her best offensive season in 2016. She notched a .298 batting average while tallying six home runs and 23 RBIs along with swiping 10 bases. She tallied 39 base hits – including 14 for extra bases – while posting a .984 career fielding percentage behind the plate.
Kennedy posted one of the best overall seasons in program history last year by posting a 17-14 overall record along with one save and a 2.16 ERA in 210.2 innings of work. Her 17 victories ranked as the fourth-best single-season in school history while her 175 strikeouts also ranked fourth in the record books. Serving as the anchor of the pitching staff, she tossed 25 complete games including a dominating 10-inning performance against Chattanooga where she struck out eight while allowing just one earned run.
Serving as the team’s lone junior captain, Smith enters her third year in a Skyhawk uniform as the team’s alternate catching option – garnering 44 starts in 2016. Smith posted a strong freshman campaign where she notched a .314 batting average before expanding her offensive damage as a sophomore by notching three home runs and 19 RBIs. Behind the plate, Smith caught 15 potential base stealers while posting a .988 career fielding percentage.
“Carly leads by example because she plays so hard on the field while also providing a vocal leader,” continued Canary. “Renate is a silent leader but leads by her play on the field and the way she hustles in everything she does. Brooke demands so much out of herself and is a commanding presence in the circle. Aeron understands the game so well and serves as a player-coach on the field. I feel like these four are great leaders for our program this season.”
When you combine the team’s leadership with a wealth of experience returning throughout the lineup, the Skyhawks have no holes to fill, but rather depth to be organized. The junior trio of Jodie Duncan, Savannah Dodson and Alicia Hansen each started more than 48 games for the Skyhawks last season while sophomores Alli Fulcher (56 games), Lauren Myers (53 games) and Gracyn McBride (43 games) all saw their name on the lineup card more often than not during their debut season.
Overall UT Martin returns 13 players from last season while welcoming eight newcomers to the fold.
“I believe that if we can stay healthy and our pitching comes along like I think it can, we will be very competitive,” said Canary. “Our schedule is really tough when you consider all of the NCAA Tournament teams that we will have to matchup against. With six preseason tournaments before heading into conference play, we hope it will help the team bond together and teach them to win. Then when you look at our league, I think there are six or seven teams that can conceivably compete for a conference title and we are one of them.”
While the Skyhawks will turn to Kennedy to anchor the pitching staff once again, Canary believes that depth inside the circle should alleviate the burden placed on her shoulders when she’s not on the field. Highlighting the pitching additions is sophomore Sara Hooten who joined the Skyhawks from Dyersburg State CC where she was named a NJCAA D1 Top Newcomer and will vie to be the team’s No. 2 arm. Senior lefty Alyssa Vanlandingham also returns to the circle after being hampered by injuries throughout her debut season last spring despite posting a 4-4 record with a 3.36 ERA in 60.1 innings of work. The Skyhawks will also see freshmen Samantha Scott and Seeley Layne compete for work.
“When you look at our pitchers, we return our unanimous No. 1 in Brooke,” said Canary. “She pushes herself so hard and has emerged as one of the best pitchers in the conference. When you add a solid newcomer in Sara as your No. 2 pitcher while Alyssa provides another senior arm, it allows our freshman to find their groove whether it be as starters or relievers.”
While the pitching staff is rich in potential, past Kennedy the staff is young in terms of innings pitched at the Division I level. Looking to expedite the maturation process will be the staff’s experienced battery-mate duo of Meckl and Smith who provide a veteran presence behind the plate. With 199 starts shared between the two catchers, the Skyhawks feel confident with its two-headed power duo. The addition of freshman Reid Ballard will provide the team with depth at both the catcher position and at first base.
“Renate and Aeron have both started for three and two years, respectively,” said Canary. “Aeron has a wealth of experience even though she hasn’t been the team’s primary catcher. Both players are strong receivers, can lead this team and will bat right in the middle of our lineup. They will both see a lot of playing time as we look to keep them in the lineup every game. Reid also swings a good bat off the bench while providing solid depth at various positions.”
While holes in the infield were aplenty heading into last season, those spots have not only been filled over the past year, but seen fervent competition increase the talent pool of key reserves. After starting just 15 games last season sophomore Jessie Douglas has battled presumptive favorite McBride for the job at first base. Douglas made the most of her 40 at-bats, posting a .300 batting average along with 12 hits and a RBI. McBride started much of her 33 games down the stretch, posting a .298 average with four home runs and 12 RBIs.
“At first we have a real battle between Jessie and Gracyn,” said Canary. “Both of those young ladies played a lot as freshman, hit around the .300 mark and both are excellent players. Jessie is more of an athletic and defensive player while playing as more of a gap hitter. Gracyn is a power hitter, with as much power as anyone in the OVC while possessing the team’s strongest arm on the infield. We hope that one player will emerge, but both will be given plenty of opportunities to make that position their own.
Meanwhile at second base the battle between the incumbent Dodson and freshman Gabby Zizzi has been highly contested. While serving as a defensive standout at second, Dodson posted a .198 average in 51 games while tallying eight RBIs and 20 stolen bases. While Zizzi has proven her offense could lift her into a conversation for a starting nod, she will at the least give the Skyhawks a valuable piece off the bench to develop.
“When you move to second base we have seen a really spirited battle between Savannah and Gabby.” “Savannah had a really strong fall and pushed that into the spring. She is hitting the ball better than I have ever seen her hit over the last few months. Savannah absolutely optimizes what you look for in a student-athlete. She works her tail off, comes to practice hardnosed and gives it a 110 percent. Then when you look at Gabby, she has been a pleasant surprise because her bat can play right away but she is still transitioning to the Division I level defensively. She is a player that can certainly grow.”
The left side of the infield will be anchored by the pair of Duncan and Fulcher once again. Duncan is coming off a season which saw her hit .234 on the year while tallying a home run and 18 RBIs. Fulcher tightened her grips on shortstop with another strong fall after starting all 56 games last season while hitting .247 with four home runs and 20 RBIs. While those positions look to be solidified, Douglas could backup Fulcher at short while newcomer Allison Evans and sophomore Alexa Combs will provide depth at the hot corner.
“Jodie has been a three-year starter for us and can make plays that are unbelievable,” said Canary. “She’s had a really strong preseason for us and can hit right in the heart of the order for us – anywhere from three through five. She was a strong hitter in high school and I think we’ve seen her turn a corner to make that power potential more consistent. On the flipside, anytime you can hand the reigns over to a freshman at a position like shortstop, you feel confident moving forward. Alli bust onto the scene offensively while showing great range at the position. When you are a freshman and can hit the way she did while keeping your errors to a minimum at such a young age, that’s really outstanding. She has a ton of potential to keep improving.”
The outfield presents a wealth of potential behind the leadership of Gonzales in center. The lefty returns for her fourth year in the outfield while being flanked with a ton of speed to all gaps. Myers is pegged to start in left field once again after posting a breakup year at the top of the order as a freshman, hitting .240 with 16 RBIs out of the two-hole. Right field will see the likes of Hansen and Loyola Marymount transfer Rachel Williams splitting time. Both provide extreme power potential along with athleticism and plus arms in the corner outfield positions to keep opposing baserunners on their toes. Freshman Kaitlyn Martin also provides a power bat from a corner spot off the bench.
“If we can get the four outfielders to live up to their potential, we are going to have a strong season,” said Canary. “With Lauren when you can combine her ability to hit, get on base and her natural speed, she provides a big piece for us in the outfield. Then with Carly she has simply done it all. When you have a senior who is constantly taking extra swings, daily fly balls and provides a vocal leader for a team, it is simply priceless. Then with the ability to use either Alicia or Rachel in right field, you feel you have great defenders that can make pitchers think with their ability to hit the ball over the fence. I think our outfield could be our difference maker.”
“I like our team and I feel like the conference is wide open,” said Canary. “It has been a lot of fun so far this year, but we have big aspirations and are ready to go to work.”
The Skyhawks will put the team’s hopes and dreams to the ultimate test when the team opens the regular season at the Southeastern Louisiana Lion Classic on Friday, Feb. 10.