FLORENCE, SC - The fifth-ranked Francis Marion University women's softball team will open its 2009 season this weekend (Feb. 7-8) at the Early Bird Tournament in Aiken. FMU will face 12th-ranked Kutztown University (10 a.m.), Erskine College (2 p.m.), and Limestone College (4 p.m.) on the opening day.
On Sunday, the Patriots will play the University of Charleston (W.V.) at 10 a.m. and Limestone again at 2 p.m.
Fifth-year FMU head coach Stacey Vallee welcomes back 14 letterwinners, including six position starters, from last season’s squad that produced the most successful season in 20 years and a 39-16 record, the third-highest win total in team history. The Patriots earned their first-ever bid to the NCAA Division II national tournament, won the South Atlantic Regional, and advanced to the Division II national finals (Elite Eight) in Houston, Texas.
“As every year opens, I am a little nervous approaching the first game,” Vallee said. However, I feel that we are ready to play. We return experience and our season goal is play our game every time we take the field.”
Leading the position returnees are All-Region leftfielder Jessica Birchmeier (.383, 4 HRs, 42 RBIs) and All-Region shortstop Shannan Tyson (.377, 1 HR, 28 RBIs). Other starting position players that are back include catcher Kayla Ruede (.206, 2 HRs, 6 RBIs), third baseman Kat Beauvais (.275, 1 HR, 17 RBIs), center fielder Lakyn Bendle (.228, 15 RBIs, 11-12 SBs), and right fielder Stevie Arrand (.172).
In addition to the position players, junior All-American left-handed pitcher Michaela Wolf returns on the mound. Wolf (29-13, 1.53 ERA) became the first Patriot hurler to win 20 games twice in a career -- after winning 21 games as a freshman, and nearly became only the second FMU pitcher to win 30 games in a season. In 2008, she set school records for strikeouts (218), innings pitched (279.1), appearances (46), starts (38), complete games (29), and shutouts (11).
The pitching staff also returns senior righty Jessie Alesi, who was 2-1 with a 3.09 earned run average in 12 appearances, and junior righty Katie Campbell, who missed all of last season with an injury after transferring from McLennan Community College.
With Wolf standing 6-0 and Alesi at 5-10, the addition of junior college transfer Emily Dean (standing 6-2) may give the Patriots the tallest rotation in Division II.
Infielder Tamela Bell comes to FMU for her senior season after transferring from PBC member Columbus State University. Last year she batted .333 with 18 RBIs, while committing only two errors in 311 fielding chances. She was recently named to the 2009 pre-season All-PBC squad at the first base spot, and may also see some action at second base. Tyson and Birchmeier were also named to the pre-season squad.
Other Patriot returnees include senior infielder Shawn Moore (.235), sophomore outfielder Maria Goode (.250), junior catcher Jamie Holmes (.167), senior outfielder Nicole Reuter (.175), senior outfielder Megan Pangburn (.211), and senior infielder Laura Hauff (.208).
Three freshmen also join the Patriot roster for 2009: catcher Kirby Ethridge (Lake City, SC), infielder-catcher Ashley Jaramillo (Canyon Country, CA), and pitcher-first baseman Lauren Bubeck (Tequesta, FL).
“With Smallz (Wolf) returning, we obviously have our No. 1 pitcher back,” Vallee said. “But we also have much more depth in the staff this year. In the field, we ‘only’ have to replace the right side of our infield, but those were two big losses in four-year players Monica Wofford and Allie Aleman. With the development of Alesi and addition of Bell, I fell we have plugged the gap at first base, and four players are currently battling for the second base starting nod.
“In the outfield, we have the entire unit back. We hope to keep improving, and with Campbell back from her injury and able to pitch and play in the outfielder, we should be even stronger.”
The Patriots’ home opener will be Tuesday at 1 p.m. against Tusculum College. For the second year in a row, the Patriots will serve as the hosts for the 2009 PBC Tournament, April 17-19, at the Freedom Florence Recreational Complex.
FMU has won at least 30 games in 10 of the last 12 campaigns, and over the past 13 seasons, Francis Marion is 115-22 during the month of February.
FMU earned 2008 NFCA All-Academic Team recognition, ranking 14th in Division II with a 3.36 GPA, while seven Patriot players were named All-America Scholar-Athletes.