ANDERSON, S.C. – One year removed from the program’s first 40-win season, the 2014 edition of Anderson University softball enters the year with the goal of capturing its’ first-ever South Atlantic Conference regular-season championship and league title.
Ninth-year head coach Tommy Hewitt guided the Trojans to their first-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament a year ago and a No. 12 national ranking in the final National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) poll. This year’s squad features nine returning letterwinners, including eight starters and five seniors from last year’s team that earned a berth in the Savannah Super Regional.
Hewitt will need to fill the void left by two departed pitchers, Lauren Bell and Bailey Smith, who combined for a 3.38 ERA and 10 shutouts in the circle a season ago. But the veteran squad possesses a wealth of experience, both offensively and defensively, and has notched 100 victories since joining the South Atlantic Conference three seasons ago. One of the strengths of the team lies in its experience – the seniors on this year’s team have combined to start nearly 600 contests over their three-year careers.
At the plate, the Trojans ranked in the top 25 nationally in five offensive categories, while setting a new school record with 58 home runs and ranked 15th nationally with their .326 team batting average. AU was also eighth in the NCAA in runs scored, while ranking 10th in triples. The Trojans’ 499 hits on the season ranks seventh all-time in the league record books and their patience at the plate showed dividends, as their 229 walks led the SAC.
The Trojans crossed the plate 356 times last season compared to scoring 303 runs in 2012, which Hewitt attributes to the additional free passes.
“I want our players to understand that those walks are hits,” he said, while adding that he places a high value on a team’s on-base percentage because it includes those walks.
“Our team attitude has been great,” said Hewitt. “The players’ attitudes are really, really good and they are working hard in the preseason. Our five seniors are looked up to by the underclassmen as well and I cannot say enough about this group of senior leaders.”
Hewitt doesn’t believe lofty expectations will adversely affect his veteran squad.
“We don’t feel any more pressure now than in the past,” concluded Hewitt. “Our goal every year is the same – win the conference title and go as far as we possibly can.”
With the addition of a pair of talented freshmen hurlers in Lauren Rudesheim and Augie Pena, along with junior transfer Katelynn Howser, Hewitt likes his pitching staff.
“I feel really good about all of our pitchers,” added Hewitt. “I believe we have two of the best freshmen pitchers around. Katelynn [Howser], a transfer from South Carolina, is also very strong and talented. They all played really well last fall and it’s going to be a dogfight among the pitchers.”
Pena, a freshman from Geneva, Ala., will battle for time in the circle after posting an impressive 48-22 record over her last two prep seasons, with a 1.51 earned run average. The right-hander recorded 510 strikeouts to help lead her high school squad to a pair of top-three finishes in the state of Alabama.
“Augie was considered one of the top pitchers in Alabama,” noted Hewitt. “We were really fortunate to get her. She has been working really hard. Every time she steps on the field she works hard.”
Fellow newcomer Lauren Rudesheim is “like a surgeon with a knife, said Hewitt. “She can put her pitches where she wants them. Lauren has real good movement on the ball, knows where to throw it and has good command of six or seven pitches.
Rudesheim will compete for a starting spot following a stellar prep career at Pacelli High School in Columbus, Ga. The right-handed hurler posted a 15-7 record with a 1.10 ERA for the Vikings her senior season and earned Region Pitcher of the Year accolades after recording 185 strikeouts in 139 innings and was named All-Region and All-West Georgia four times.
Howser, a transfer from South Carolina, battled though injuries during her second season with the Gamecocks, appearing in 13 games, with six starts. She went 3-0 with a 3.86 ERA. During her rookie campaign, Howser led the team with eight wins, 129 2/3 innings and 91 strikeouts.
“Katelyn was injured a good part of last year at USC,” said Hewitt. “She is a power pitcher and has really good movement. She knows what she’s doing in the circle and she’s all about business when she gets in there.”
Senior catcher Laura Jansky is a three-year starter behind the dish who hit .300 as a junior last season. She earned SAC Player of the Week accolades in mid-March and finished third in the conference with 45 RBI and 10th in the league with seven home runs. Jansky recorded an eight-game hitting streak and notched 12 multi-hit games in 2013.
“Laura has to be one of the better catchers in the conference,” noted Hewitt. “Everyone respects her arm defensively and her stick is strong. Her work ethic over the fall period and Christmas holidays was great.”
Senior Carly Hudson will also see time behind the plate after playing in 13 contests a year ago.
“Carly has a strong arm and has been working hard on her hitting,” added Hewitt. “Her attitude is great and she will play an important role on this team.”
First-team All-South Atlantic Conference selection and Honorable Mention All-American Danielle Swygert returns at first base for her senior campaign after finishing in the top seven in the league in seven offensive categories, including third in the conference with a .398 batting average and second in RBI. Swygert recorded 24 multi-hit games and drove in at least three runs on 11 occasions last season.
“It goes back to Danielle,” added Hewitt. “She has been a mainstay since she’s been here and has gotten stronger every year. She had a terrific season a year ago and I believe she’ll have an even better season this year. She has a good stick and great claw and I cannot say enough about her attitude. She’s a senior leader.”
Junior First-Team All-America selection Jessica Neidigh, who was 10th in the nation in triples per contest a year ago, eighth in runs scored and 15th nationally with her .457 batting average, is back at second base. She set the school record and led the league with 90 base hits, while notching 29 multi-hit games and recorded a team-high 17-game hitting streak. Neidigh was third in the conference with a .670 slugging percentage and displayed her savvy on the basepaths, going 20-for-21 in stolen bases.
“Jess is amazing,” said Hewitt. “She led the league in hitting. She came out of high school playing shortstop, moved to second base for us and she can flat play it.”
Senior Abby Child, who was second in the nation in walks per game last season, is back at shortstop after ranking 15th in the league with her .329 batting average. Child has started every game over the three-year span and currently ranks second in the school record books with 32 home runs and third with 118 runs scored. Child finished third in the conference with 45 RBI last season, fifth in the league with nine home runs and fifth in the conference with 43 runs scored.
“Abby is another player that I cannot say enough about,” noted Hewitt. “I don’t think she’s missed a game. She is in good shape and has a great mental attitude. Abby really knows the game well, has good range defensively and has a power stick. I expect this to be her best year yet.”
Bri Cason, who returns at the hot corner “sometimes gets overlooked around the conference at third base,” said Hewitt. “She sticks her nose in there. She’s tough and she hits well. She has to be the best third baseman in the conference.”
Cason recorded a .305 batting average a year ago and tied for 17th in the league with nine doubles. The Lawrenceville, Ga., native posted a six-game hitting streak and two five-game hitting streaks, while notching 12 multi-hit games and was third on the team with 26 walks.
Junior Rebecca Martin, an Anderson, S.C. native, started 27 contests for the Trojans a year ago and notched 14 hits, including a double and a triple. She scored 11 runs and added seven walks on the season.
“Rebecca came back this year with a different attitude than in the past,” noted Hewitt. “She has a really good attitude. She has always worked hard, but this year she has a different determination about what she’s going to do and how she’s going to get it done. She taking extra swings in practice and has great attitude.”
Senior Charlotte Sieber saw action in 38 games in 2013, and was fourth on the team with a .333 batting average. She recorded 26 hits and drove in 19 runs while starting 30 contests.
“Charlotte is as consistent as anyone we have on the team,” added Hewitt. “Her hitting is consistent, she has a winning attitude and nothing fazes her. She’s getting after it and working hard.”
An All-South Atlantic Conference performer last season, center fielder Molly Child is the lone sophomore on this year’s roster. She finished third on the team and 13th in the league with a .335 batting average and posted a 14-game hitting streak last February, while ranking in the top-seven in the SAC in six additional offensive categories.
“Molly hit extremely well last season,” said Hewitt. But I think she’s still learning at the plate and once she gets more experience at the plate she will be at the top of the conference in batting average and home runs.”
Freshman Courtney Czentnar will join the veterans in the outfield after earning All-County, All-Region and All-State honors while playing at Greater Atlanta Christian. She recorded an impressive .621 batting average and hit .782 with runners in scoring position during her senior season. Czentnar posted a slugging percentage of 1.241, while blasting seven home runs and had an on-base percentage of .689 with the Spartans.
“I’m not taking anything away from our other freshmen when I say I expect Courtney to be in the running for Freshman of the Year, added Hewitt. “That’s the kind of player she is and how talented she is. She has a strong arm and is working hard. Once she gets some experience she’s going to hit the ball really well - for average as well as power.”
The Trojans’ 2014 slate will consist of a 50-game schedule, including 22 SAC contests, and will include matchups against Chowan, Georgia College, Lenoir-Rhyne, and Wingate, each of whom reached the postseason.
“This may be the toughest schedule we’ve had since I’ve been here,” said Hewitt.
The Trojans open their 2014 slate with back-to-back Conference Carolinas opponents, welcoming Lees-McRae to Smethers Field on Sunday, Feb. 2. First-pitch versus the Bobcats is set for 1 p.m.