Softball Opens Season Friday at FSU

February 13, 2003 · MT Media Relations

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. - Middle Tennessee softball opens the 2003 season on Friday when the Lady Raiders travel to Florida State to participate in the Sunshine State Tournament.


For the first time in school history the Lady Raiders will open the season with a top 10 team when Middle Tennessee faces No. 9 Florida State at 4 p.m. on Friday. The two day round robin tournament will also pit Middle Tennessee against Iowa State earlier in the day at 2 p.m. Middle Tennessee faced both teams in 2002 and lost by one run to both.  


Youth is the dominant theme for Middle Tennessee softball in 2003, as the Lady Raiders only return seven players from last year's squad. Head Coach Cindy Connelley brought in six freshmen and seven transfers to complement the squad, and is looking for the team to mesh quickly.


Building a team from the ground up has to start with senior leadership and the Lady Raiders have two strong fronts in senior captains Stayc Preator and Kip Phillips. Three-year starters for Middle Tennessee, the duo have the experience and track record to be solid leaders for the team.


"We have great leadership in Stayc and Kip," Connelley said. "Both have determination and leadership skills that will be an integral part of this team." 

After enjoying the luxury of three senior pitchers last season, the Lady Raiders now turn to lone veteran Preator to lead the pitching squad. After three seasons behind decorated hurler Martinez, it is now Preator's time to shine.


In 2002, Preator ended the season with a team leading 1.72 ERA and boasted a 4-0 record in May including one shut out. She also set a new school record with most innings without giving up a walk with 42.1. In total, the senior from El Cajon, Calif., only gave up 10 walks and struck out 116 batters in 2002.


"Our pitching starts with Stayc, because she anchors the staff," Connelley said. "She has done a lot of work this fall and relishes the role of being a leader on and off the mound."


Behind Preator are four freshmen hurlers. It is a real battle for the second and third spots in the rotation, as well as who will become the team's reliever.


The freshmen ranks include Tennessee talents Muriel Ledbetter and Tiffany Childress.  The only left-handed pitcher on the squad is Valerie Swanson, who hails from Rancho Cordova, Calif. She is a two-time MVP at Loretto High School. Jennifer Dorais is another versatile player who may split time on the mound and in the field. The Sacramento, Calif., native set a new school pitching record with 505 strikeouts in four years at Hiram Johnson West High School. Another pitcher the Lady Raiders have in the bullpen is Leora Brannon. She hails from Cross Junction, Virginia.


Although there is a lot of diversity on the pitching staff, it is still a youthful corp. The games early in the schedule will allow the squad to become further acclimated with NCAA Division I softball after a successful fall where the team won both tournaments.


Losing a two-year starting catcher like Lindsay Azevedo is a big change for the Lady Raiders behind the plate. Sophomore Leah Grothause was successful in her outings and is ready to take over the reigns.


Splitting time between the outfield and behind the mask, Grothause is the heir apparent, but she must prove she has a consistent stick to stay in the line-up. Last season she was second on the team in batting average at .284, scoring 12 runs, hitting four doubles and collecting eight RBI and is expected to build on those numbers.  


Kari Crandell, a transfer from Ohio State, and Megan Stapleton, will be fighting for time behind the plate and the line-up as well. Crandell played ten games for the Buckeyes last season, while Stapleton attended Marshall County High School and is a transfer from Mississippi University for Women.


"I am confident in all of their play-calling abilities in game situations," Connelley said. "I told them that the best bat will start."

Middle Tennessee returns three players in the infield from last year's squad. Senior Megan Cherinka, junior Kristina Hieb, and sophomore DeCamino all look to make an impact between the lines.


Cherinka will try to anchor the right corner at first base. Last season she played in 35 games and posted a .246 batting average.


In the middle, Hieb is expected to be in a battle for second base, but can also play first and third. She led the team in batting average in 2002 at .289, scoring 14 runs and sending in eight.


The left corner will be the post for DeCamino. She was second on the team in homeruns with four, scoring 16 runs, sending 17 around and had a .261 batting average.


The top recruit for the Lady Raiders in the infield is University of Arkansas transfer Cortney Mitchell, who hails from Mt. Juliet, Tenn., and will play shortstop. At Arkansas, she was third on the team in batting average at .282, while leading the team in doubles with 12. She was also third on the team in RBI with 23 and led the team in runs scored with 26.    


"Cortney will really stuff the middle at short," Connelley said. "She is the type of player that you can't leave out of the lineup and will play a lot at short but is a national level second baseman."


Other possible players for the infield include Dorais and Ledbetter, and Krystal Scott. All three will be fighting for time in the middle and at the corners.


Scott is a junior college transfer from Neosho Community College. She was named All-Conference and All-Region and had a .404 batting average and eight homeruns in 2002.


"This is a quality infield," Connelley said. "I believe we have a really tough defensive lineup with the depth of this group of players."

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