GREENEVILLE, Tenn. --- With nearly everybody back from last season, the Tusculum University softball team is determined to use last year's outcome as a learning experience for a strong 2019 season.
The Pioneers were 24-25 overall and finished 6-14 in the South Atlantic Conference last year, but return eight of their nine starting hitters and four pitchers. In all, 16 of the 20 players who saw action for the Pioneers in 2018 are on this year's opening day roster.
"We are more experienced, more mature and wiser from a year ago. Hopefully we have learned from some of the mistakes we made last year due to youth. We had a few close losses and needed to clean some things up, but I have a good feeling with this group," said head coach Julie Huebner, who begins her seventh season with 156 victories which are the second-most in program history. "We have depth at every position, and it's breeded competition and brought out the best in everyone."
Tusculum plays its season opener on Tuesday, Feb. 5 with a doubleheader at Southern Wesleyan. The Pioneers will play their home opener at Red Edmonds Field on Saturday, Feb. 9 against Mount Olive, and begin their SAC schedule on Saturday, March 16 at Catawba.
Four-year starter Emily Hester (Kings Mountain, N.C.) returns at first base for the Pioneers. Hester hit .297 last season with five home runs and a team-high 32 runs batted in. Hester, who was second on the team with 20 walks, will begin her senior season with a .309 career average with 15 home runs and 109 runs batted in.
Her 15 career home runs rank fifth in program history, while her 109 RBIs are seventh-best on the Tusculum all-time list. Hester also ranks in the program's career top 10 in on-base percentage (.396, sixth), walks (66, fourth) and total bases (210, ninth), and is the all-time leader with nine sacrifice flies.
Solidifying the middle infield are sophomore Brittney Franse (Knoxville, Tenn.) at second base and junior Sammie West (Maiden, N.C.) at shortstop. West took over at shortstop last season and hit .277 with a home run and 23 runs batted in 49 games. She had six stolen bases and drew 23 walks to lead the Pioneers. West has 100 career hits and a career on-base percentage of .429 which is second-best in program history.
Franse hit .302 in 48 games with three home runs and 15 runs batted in, while stealing nine bases in 10 attempts. In the field, Franse had just one error in 147 chances and participated in eight double plays.
At third base, junior Taylor Johnson (Spring Hill, Tenn.) started 46 games last season and hit .303 with four home runs and 25 runs batted in. Johnson was third on the team with 11 doubles and had 11 multi-hit games, and begins her junior season tied for seventh in program history with 12 home runs. Johnson, who has 111 career hits, ranks seventh in career batting average at .355. She may also see time behind the plate for the Pioneers.
More depth in the infield will come from freshman Grace Jones (Rogersville, Tenn.) and junior Grayson Brown (Hixson, Tenn.), a transfer from Cleveland State. Brown hit .313 with five home runs and 29 runs batted in for Cleveland State last season, and had a two-year batting average of .336 in 88 games. Jones was a three-time All-Conference selection at Cherokee High School, where she was team MVP as a senior.
Battle was named honorable mention All-SAC after finishing second on the team in batting average (.355) and in hits (61). Battle led the SAC with eight triples, and had team highs of 35 runs scored and 12 stolen bases. She was also outstanding in left field for the Pioneers, making just one error in 100 chances while contributing three assists. Battle has a career batting average of .289 with three home runs, 36 runs batted in, 77 runs scored and 129 hits, while her 50 career stolen bases are third all-time in program history.
Mahaffey started 47 games in center field and contributed 15 runs batted in and nine sacrifice bunts, which were tied for the team lead. Mahaffey has a career batting average of .223 with 66 hits, 55 runs scoredand 40 runs batted in, along with 17 stolen bases without being caught. In two years as the Pioneers' starting center fielder, Mahaffey has not made an error in 100 games and 129 total chances.
Outfield depth will come from a group that includes senior Emily White (Milford, Mich.), sophomores Tori West (Knoxville, Tenn.) and Brittany Fletcher (Candler, N.C.) and freshman Caitlyn Brinkley (Hendersonville, Tenn.). White has appeared in 89 career games, primarily as a pinch-runner, and has 28 runs scored and four stolen bases. West appeared in 23 games last season and scored seven runs, and Fletcher was 6-for-18 at the plate in 19 games with eight runs scored. Brinkley was a two-time All-State and four-time All-Region selection at Pope John Paul II High School in suburban Nashville.
Sophomore Emma Casey (Mechanicsville, Va.) started all 49 games at catcher and hit .315 with two home runs and 19 runs batted in to earn team Most Valuable Player honors. Casey threw out six would-be base stealers and allowed just three passed balls all season.
Freshman Chloe Freischmidt (Naples, Fla.) was three-time All-State, four-time All-Area and four-time All-County at Barron Collier High School. She was named Best Defensive Player three times and earned Best Offense honors as a senior.
Several Pioneers will rotate among various positions in the Tusculum lineup, with capability of starting in both the infield and outfield along with designated player.
Sophomore Anna Alloway (Louisville, Tenn.) will be used in a utility role for the Pioneers again this year, after having started games at both second base and third base as a freshman. Alloway led the Pioneers with seven home runs and 13 doubles last season, and was third on the team with a .333 batting average. Alloway also paced the team in slugging percentage at .578 and had 29 runs batted in to rank second on the squad.
Junior Alexis Grampp (Harrison, Tenn.) was an National Junior College Athletic Association Division I second-team All-American last year at Chipola (Florida) College. Grampp started at first base as the Indians advanced to the national championship game and finished 56-4. After hitting .340 with 12 home runs and 56 runs batted in as a freshman, Grampp batted .445 with eight homers and 64 RBIs last year to earn NFCA All-Region honors.
Sophomore Courtney Gibson (Conover, N.C.) played in 43 games last season and scored 18 runs, while going 2-for-5 at the plate and stealing five bases. Freshman Bree Whitson (Lexington, Ky.) was All-Region first team and selected All-District and All-City at Tates Creek High School, while hitting .435 with 13 homers and 57 runs batted in for her career.
All four pitchers on the Pioneer roster are back from last year's staff, led by senior Taylor Plemons (Knoxville, Tenn.). Last season, Plemons went 7-9 with two saves and a 4.41 earned run average in 27 appearances (17 starts). Plemons threw nine complete games and struck out 67 batters in 108 innings of work. For her career, Plemons ranks among the program leaders in appearances (80, sixth), shutouts (5, ninth) and strikeouts (181, tenth), and has a 22-33 record with a 4.30 earned run average.
Junior Allison Pate (Wilson, N.C.) made 21 starts and compiled a 9-11 record with a 3.49 earned run average. Pate threw 122 1/3 innings over 28 appearances and struck out 62 batters, while tossing nine complete games. Pate has a 12-11 career record with a 3.34 earned run average and 77 strikeouts in 140 1/3 innings pitched.
Sophomore Ivee Richesin (Philadelphia, Tenn.) made four appearances as a freshman and went 1-0 with four strikeouts in 7 2/3 innings of work. Sophomore Ashley Scozzari (Mooresville, N.C.) went 3-0 in four appearances with a 4.94 earned run average, striking out four in 11 1/3 innings pitched.
The Pioneers will face six NCAA Tournament qualifiers during their 53-game regular-season schedule, and will play teams from 10 different conferences. Of the Pioneers' 28 opponents, 17 finished with a .500 or better record last season and 19 were at break-even or better in their respective conferences.
The Pioneers will open the season with five straight doubleheaders against teams from Conference Carolinas, starting on Tuesday, Feb. 5 at Southern Wesleyan. The Warriors were 8-39 overall and 3-17 in the league last season, finishing in 10th place. Tusculum leads the all-time series over Southern Wesleyan by a 2-1 margin.
Tusculum's home opener is Saturday, Feb. 9 against Mount Olive followed by a twinbill with Converse on Sunday, Feb. 10. The Trojans finished in a tie for sixth place in Conference Carolinas at 9-11 in the league, and went 24-28 overall. The Pioneers are 4-3 all-time against the Trojans. Meanwhile, the Valkyries are coming off a 3-49 season in which they went 1-19 in the conference and finished in 11th place. The Pioneers swept a doubleheader last season in the only previous meeting.
The Pioneers continue their trip through Conference Carolinas on Wednesday, Feb. 13 at home against Lees-McRae. The Bobcats went 17-26 overall but finished in fifth place in the league at 11-9, and are meeting the Pioneers for the first time since 2016. Tusculum leads the all-time series over Lees-McRae 27 wins to eight. Tusculum continues its homestand on Saturday, Feb. 16 against Limestone. The Saints finished first in Conference Carolinas last year with a 17-1 record and went 34-12 overall, but were eliminated early in the conference tournament. Limestone leads the all-time series over Tusculum by a slim 25-24 margin.
Tusculum wraps up its string of five straight home dates on Tuesday, Feb. 19 against Lee. The Flames were 28-28 overall last year and took ninth place in the Gulf South Conference with a 15-18 record. Lee has the lead over Tusculum in the all-time series 24-16.
The Pioneers venture back to the road on Wednesday, Feb. 20 with a trip to North Greenville. The Crusaders finished 32-15 overall and 15-5 in Conference Carolinas to capture third place. Tusculum holds a 15-9 advantage over North Greenville in the all-time series.
On Saturday, Feb. 23 the Pioneers will host Davis & Elkins in their first-ever meeting. The Senators were 15-20-1 overall last season and 10-9-1 in the Great Midwest Athletic Conference, putting them in sixth place in the league. The following day, the Pioneers host 2018 NCAA participant Young Harris for a doubleheader. The Mountain Lions were 35-21 overall in 2018 and took fourth place in the Peach Belt Conference at 13-7. The teams last met in 2015, with Young Harris leading the series by a 5-3 margin.
A two-game road swing to the east begins with a doubleheader at Francis Marion on Saturday, March 3. The Patriots were tied for ninth place in the Peach Belt Conference at 5-15 and finished 19-25 overall. Francis Marion leads the series over Tusculum 12-4 with one tie. The next day, Tusculum will meet Winston Salem State for the first time. The Rams were 13-26 overall last season and finished in sixth place in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association at 9-7.
After returning from their road trip, Tusculum will stay at the friendly confines of Red Edmonds Field until the start of conference play. The Pioneers will host Erskine on Wednesday, March 6 to face a Flying Fleet squad that took second place in Conference Carolinas at 16-2 and finished 27-17 overall last year. The Pioneers lead the all-time series over the Flying Fleet 11-3.
The annual Pioneer Classic will be played at Red Edmonds Field from March 8-10, and the Pioneers will play three games during the weekend. On Saturday, March 9 Tusculum will play New Haven and future conference member UVa-Wise. The Chargers were 25-21 overall last year and placed fourth in the Southwest Division of the Northeast-10 with a 14-12 record. The teams split two games last season in their first-ever meeting. Also on Saturday, the Pioneers will play the Cavaliers of UVa-Wise who will join the SAC in 2020 from the Mountain East Conference, where they went 29-23 overall and 16-16 in league for a third-place finish in the South Division. Tusculum leads the series over UVa-Wise 14 wins to four.
On Sunday, March 10 Tusculum will play a single game against Columbus State. The Cougars were third in the Peach Belt Conference at 14-6 last season and went 33-19 overall. Tusculum has lost nine out of 10 meetings with Columbus State in a series that has been dormant since 2015, with the Pioneers' lone win coming in 2012.
Tusculum's final tuneup before conference play begins is a visit from Bloomsburg on Wednesday, March 13. The Huskies compete in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference and went 20-22 overall last season, tying for second place in the PSAC Central Division with an 11-9 record. The doubleheader will be the first meeting between the Pioneers and the Huskies, who are also playing Lincoln Memorial, Catawba and Lenoir-Rhyne during their southern trip.
The Pioneers' SAC schedule gets underway on Saturday, March 16 at Catawba. The Indians tied for seventh place in the conference last season at 8-12, and finished 20-26 overall. Tusculum swept Catawba at home last season, leveling the all-time series at 22 wins apiece.
Tusculum will then be home for twinbills with Anderson on Tuesday, March 19 and Newberry on Saturday, March 23. The Trojans and Wolves both finished tied for third place in the SAC at 11-9 last year, and both had sweeps of their meetings with the Pioneers on their respective home fields. Anderson has a 13-11 lead in the all-time series with Tusculum, and Newberry also has a two-victory edge over the Pioneers at 22 wins to 20.
Tusculum closes out March with a road doubleheader at Mars Hill on Wednesday, March 27 and a visit from Wingate on Saturday, March 30. Mars Hill tied for ninth place in the SAC at 7-13 last season and went 17-19 overall, while Wingate was 23-26 overall and tied for third place with Anderson and Newberry at 11-9 in the league. The Pioneers swept Mars Hill at home last season and lead the series 41-23, and had a split at Wingate to leave the Bulldogs with a 38-7 edge in the series.
April's schedule for the Pioneers will see five of their seven doubleheaders against NCAA Tournament qualifiers from 2018, starting on Tuesday, April 2 with a trip to rival Carson-Newman. The Eagles managed only a seventh-place tie in the SAC last season at 8-12, but won three games in the tournament to grab an automatic bid to nationals before finishing the year at 33-21. A split of last year's meeting in Greeneville kept Carson-Newman well ahead in the all-time series 40-12.
Another trip to North Carolina on Saturday, April 6 will bring the Pioneers to Charlotte to face Queens. The Royals earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament despite going 10-10 and finishing sixth in the SAC, and ended the year with an overall record of 35-17. Queens swept Tusculum in the final conference doubleheader of last season, giving the Royals a 6-4 advantage in the series.
Tusculum will host Lincoln Memorial on Wednesday, April 10 and entertain Coker on Senior Day on Saturday, April 13. The Railsplitters were tied for ninth place in the SAC last season at 7-13 and finished 24-22 overall, which included a home sweep of the Pioneers. LMU holds a 47-27 edge over Tusculum in the all-time series. Coker grabbed an NCAA at-large bid after taking second place in the SAC at 12-8 and 36-18 overall. The Cobras also swept the Pioneers last year at home, and lead the all-time series with the Pioneers by a 9-7 margin.
Tusculum will visit King for a non-conference doubleheader on Monday, April 15. The Tornado were the Conference Carolinas tournament champions after going 13-7 and finishing fourth in the league during the regular season. King, which went 36-22 overall last year, trails Tusculum 37-8 in a series that was interrupted last season due to rainouts.
The Pioneers conclude their conference slate on Friday, April 19 against the reigning SAC regular-season champions in Lenoir-Rhyne. The Bears were a stellar 19-1 in the regular season last year and ended the year with a 45-10 record, and swept the Pioneers in a tightly-contested doubleheader at Red Edmonds Field last spring. Lenoir-Rhyne leads the series with Tusculum 44-7.
As in past years, the Pioneers have scheduled a non-conference doubleheader with Milligan to wrap up the regular season on Monday, April 22. The Buffaloes tied for fifth in the Appalachian Athletic Conference with a 15-9 record, and ended the year at 22-20 overall. Tusculum has the lead in the all-time series over Milligan by a 42-29 margin with one tie.
The SAC Championship tournament will be an eight-team, single-elimination tournament for the second year in a row. It will be held April 26-27 on the campus of Catawba.