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Sun Belt Tournament a New Beginning for Blue Raiders

May 11, 2005 · MT Media Relations
The Middle Tennessee Blue Raider softball team is not having the season they envisioned entering camp back in January.

There is no hiding it. The Blue Raiders have an overall record of 8-41 and ended the regular season with a Sun Belt Conference record of 1-19. They enter Thursday's Sun Belt Tournament as the sixth seed in a six-team tournament and are scheduled to face No. 3 seed Florida International.

If the 2005 Blue Raider softball team didn't have bad luck, then they wouldn't have any at all. The team entered the season with a senior veteran pitcher in Crystal Bobo and a promising freshman hurler in Ashley Katinas. It wasn't an ideal situation, with just two pitchers, but again the Blue Raiders entered it with their heads high and a positive attitude.

The dark cloud began to form over the team when just days before the season began junior Muriel Ledbetter suffered a season-ending injury during practice. Scratch one off the list.

A second blow came in the infancy of the season when Blue Raider Head Coach Leigh Podlesny informed the players that Bobo had decided to leave the team. Middle Tennessee was down to one pitcher, a freshman, Katinas, who had only seen 10 appearances as a collegiate player.

Self-sacrifice would begin to rear its head in the form of junior Jennifer Dorais and sophomore Trish White. The duo was enjoying their exclusive roles as infielder and outfielder, but team necessity would force them to take another path. Dorais and White did have pitching experience, in fact, the two had extensive time on the mound last season but were told their services on the mound would not be needed this year. So, they both concentrated on their first loves and left pitching behind them.

After Podlesny announced the departure of Bobo, White promptly strode up to Head Coach Leigh Podlesny to let her know she could pitch if they needed her. Podlesny took White up on her offer. She had already approached Dorais, so the duo settled into the idea of starting a few games and then coming in for relief to give Katinas a break.

The brightest moment for the Blue Raiders came in a home series with SEC opponent Mississippi State. After being shutout in the first game 8-0 in six innings one would think this would bring a team down, but not Middle Tennessee.

In the second game, Middle Tennessee did put together a couple of runs and found themselves down 5-2 in the bottom of the seventh inning.

The Blue Raiders entered the bottom of the seventh trailing 5-2 and were down to just two outs after Candis Littrell lined out to right field. Senior right fielder Jennifer Grybash started the Middle Tennessee rally with a double to right field. Leah Grothause's single advanced Grybash to third and Grybash scored off an RBI single by Melissa Weiland.

With runners on first and second, Mississippi State made a pitching change, replacing relief pitcher Sara Hickerson with Melissa Massey, who tossed the first game. Massey walked Liz Davis to load the bases and Middle Tennessee made the Bulldog pitcher pay. White launched a liner to the outfield to plate pinch runner Michelle Wilkes and Grothause to tie the game at five.

The tie set up a chance for the Blue Raiders to take the game, working with just one out. Sophomore Christi Benton stepped into the box with the opportunity to snap an 11 game losing streak for her team, and she took her opportunity to the wall. Benton, who saw very little action as a freshman, pounded a double to left centerfield to score Davis and secure the win for Middle Tennessee.

It was the first win of the year for Katinas and she was euphoric first for the team before she realized it was the first victory for her on the mound. Typical team mentality, she was thinking of her club first and herself second. The win was fun and it was exciting but again a storm cloud was brewing.

Blow number three came after the team split with Birmingham-Southern on March 23. Katinas wasn't feeling well and it was soon discovered she too had suffered a season-ending injury. The Blue Raiders were down to two pitchers who just a few weeks ago were strictly position players.

Riding on the bus up to Louisville, the girls talked softly about facing host Louisville and then the top-ranked team in the land later that day. Their goals weren't lofty, some would call them down beat, but they were still optimistic.

The rest of March and all of April were bad, really bad. The team could only muster two wins in the Month of April. It would cause the most patient of observers to pound their head.

The last regular season games came this past weekend as the team traveled to Louisiana-Lafayette, the 13th ranked team in the country and the top-ranked team in the conference. The Blue Raiders took their knocks, losing 9-0 and 8-0, but was up and ready to go the next day with that continued strain of optimism.

On Sunday, the Blue Raiders felt the wind kick up again. Yes, the injuries were mounting and it was striking all over the field. Weiland was injured on Saturday and hobbled onto the field and to third base because there was no one else to play the position. Jessica Boyce was out from an injury suffered on Saturday and White was relegated to designated player because she was suffering from an injury herself.

Wait, White was out? No pitching? The team was down to one pitcher again. Hand the ball off to Dorais for both games on Sunday. Or so it would seem.

In the back of the bus sat freshman Kristine Reed. She brought the subject to her captain Davis first. She had pitched in high school, albeit her sophomore year, but she did have experience. Should she tell the coaches? Would they laugh? More importantly what would she do if they said yes?

The answer came in game one on Sunday when Reed went to the back of the dugout to warm up. The freshman that hadn't pitched in two years, and sure hadn't gotten any instruction this season was about to go on the mound and face the 13th ranked team in the country.

In relief she saw two innings of action, and Reed recorded the first three-up-three-down of the game, and to top it off, she started game two. Most people might have kept their talents hidden. Why would they want the stress of pitching, when they haven't done it in two years, against a top-ranked team?

Well, Reed summed it up later that day at dinner. She approached the coaches and went into the pitching circle because the team needed her. How could someone argue with that?

The players have a healthy dose of optimism. They want to win the first game of the tournament. It would be a nice story, halting a 12-game losing streak in the last hooray for the four seniors. In fact, it would be a great end to the tale, and not use the word unfortunately.

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