FLORENCE, S.C. – Francis Marion University will open its 2011 softball season this weekend with four games at the Early Bird Tournament in Aiken at Citizens Park.
On Saturday (Feb. 5), the Patriots will play Chowan University at noon and Erskine College at 2 p.m. FMU will also play twice on Sunday (Feb. 6) against Barton College at noon and the University of Charleston (WV) at 2 p.m.
The Patriots will play their home opener on Feb. 13 against Lenoir-Rhyne University at 1 p.m. on the FMU Softball Field. The Patriots' 52-game schedule includes nine home doubleheaders and the annual Patriot Invitational Tournament and the Peach Belt Conference Tournament, both to be hosted at the Freedom Florence Softball Complex.
Seventh-year FMU head coach Stacey Vallee welcomes back nine letterwinners, including five position starters, and one starting pitcher, from the 2010 squad that finished 36-16 and earned the program’s second NCAA Division II National Tournament invitation in three seasons. The Patriots advanced to the championship game of both the Peach Belt Conference Tournament and the NCAA Dahlonega Southeast Regional.
Leading the returnees is All-Region outfielder Chelle Phillips (.349, 47 runs, 2 HRs, 31 RBI), All-Conference second baseman Ashley Jaramillo (.323, 5 HRs, 43 RBI), and All-PBC centerfielder Destinea Schneider (.350, 11-15 SBs). Phillips was also recently named to the preseason All-PBC squad.
Senior right-hander Cea Knox returns on the mound. In 23 contests last season, Knox was 14-6 with a 3.33 earned run average. Sophomore lefty Murphy McConnell, who appeared in four games last season, also returns from last year’s pitching staff.
However, the Patriots must replace career record-setting lefty pitcher and designated hitter Michaela Wolf and four-year standouts Jessica Birchmeier (LF) and Kat Beauvais (3B). Wolf, a four-time 20-game winner, left owning nearly every Patriot pitching mark. Vallee knows that filling that void will not be easy.
“No one player is going to replace Michaela. What we must do as team is replace her numbers. That includes wins and innings on the mound and key hits at the plate. And, this means every spot in the line-up. We return a good core of starters and several newcomers who will step in and contribute immediately.”
Shortstop Jessica Hogan is back for her senior season after starting 50 of 52 games in 2010. Sophomore Olivia Ferguson returns behind the plate after a productive freshman campaign that saw her bat .260 with a .367 on-base percentage while starting all but one contest. Sophomore outfielder Tristan Faile returns, but will likely move to the infield – possibly third base. Faile’s freshman year – during which she hit .286 – was cut short by an injury after 15 games.
Phillips, who ranked 89th nationally in runs scored per game (0.90) last year, will likely move from right to left field. Sophomore Ashleigh Sammut, a transfer from the University of Mobile that attended FMU last season but sat out, will patrol right field.
Sammut is one of 12 newcomers, a group that consists of nine freshmen and three transfers.
Junior Megann Sallinger, a transfer from Gulf Coast Community College, will be the probable starter at first base, while local product Carson Summersett (West Florence High School) may open the year at the designated hitter position.
Among the other newcomers most likely to contribute to the Patriot attack early this season are freshmen outfielders Brooke Barnhill (Mauldin, SC) and Olivia Zielinski (Greenville, SC) and freshmen infielders Lindsey Brown (Concord, NC) and Sara Broderick (Sunrise, FL).
Vallee hinted that either Knox or junior righty Kayla Ellingsen would start on the mound for Saturday’s season opener. Ellingsen recorded a 19-8 mark with a 2.30 ERA last season at the State College of Florida, while also logging an impressive 210 innings.
“We are anxious to get the season started,” Vallee said. We are ready to face someone else’s pitcher instead of playing amongst ourselves. It will be exciting to see how this incoming class can mesh with the returnees and form a cohesive group that we hope will battle for the Peach Belt title and a berth in the NCAA Tournament.”
Knox, Ferguson, and Faile were among six players from last year’s squad to earn NFCA All-America Scholar-Athlete recognition in 2010, and the Patriots received an NFCA All-Academic Team award for 2010, the fifth consecutive year FMU has earned that honor (and seventh time in the past 11 years).
Francis Marion has won at least 30 games in 12 of the last 14 season.