Florence, S.C.- Francis Marion University’s softball team heads into the 2001 season few in number, but long on experience. The Patriots return 12 of 14 letterwinners from last year’s 35-23 team, including seven of eight position starters and all three pitchers.
Francis Marion opens the 2001 season on the road Feb. 16 at Queens College in Charlotte, N.C. The squad’s home opener will be Feb. 18 when the Patriots entertain Mount Olive College at 1 p.m.
Led by fifth-year head coach Bill Gray, the Patriots look to build on their 35-win season from last year, the fourth-highest win total in team history. “I have tried to instill in this team a winning mentality, and after 30-plus wins in three of the last four seasons, they are starting to show glimpses of that,” said Gray. “We just need to keep it all season long.”
Leading the returnees are senior Mandy Harris and sophomore Laurie Niego, along with starting pitchers Janet Rice, Heather Johnson, and Amy Birch. Harris, a native of Richardson, Texas, and a three-year starter at shortstop, led last year’s team in hits (64) and runs scored (40), while batting .339. Niego, a designated hitter from Chicago, Ill., hit .324 and led the squad in runs batted in (37) and total bases (87), while recording five home runs among her 20 extra-base hits.
The trio of Rice, Johnson, and Birch set a school record for most strikeouts in a season (353 in 374.2 innings). Johnson was 14-6 with a 1.33 earned run average, while Birch was 14-10 (1.87 ERA) and Rice was 7-7 (1.96 ERA).
“We are relying heavily on our pitching trio to come through again this season. Last year, we had the third-best fielding percentage in the (Peach Belt) conference. If we can maintain that, along with a strong performance from the mound, we will be in good shape,” said Gray.
Other returning starters are sophomore third baseman Jennifer Sturgeon (.331 avg. 22 RBIs), junior outfielder Jodie Hatzenbihler (1999 team MVP), senior first baseman Tara Stegall (.219, 17 RBIs), senior second baseman Kelly Horak (.313 avg., 13 stolen bases), and senior outfielders Tracie Wondra (.262, 27 runs, 10 SBs), and Ginger Miller (.273).
The Patriot roster lists only one newcomer this season, Florence native Chrissy Manley. “Because we have a limited roster, I am looking for Chrissy to fill many holes for us in case of injuries,” said Gray.
“Our main focuses will be on defense and improving our hitting,” said Gray. “We lost a lot of our power (catcher Tara Quinton) from last year, so everyone needs to pick up 20 to 30 points on their batting average to fill the void. We’re not looking for power necessarily in terms of home runs, just good solid base hits. Our goal is to limit teams to two runs with defense and try to score at least five runs ourselves.”
According to Gray, to compensate for the lack of power, the Patriots will instead turn to a more aggressive attack that will include more use of hit-and-run and base-stealing tactics.
“In my experience here, we always seem to come out of the blocks well (FMU opened the 2000 season 15-1 and Gray’s FMU squads own a 29-4 all-time mark in February). We need to avoid injuries and keep a good mindset all year long.” Gray also commented that even with the small roster, many of the players are versatile enough to play different positions.
Francis Marion will face a tough 20-game Peach Belt Conference schedule in 2001, hoping to build on last season’s eighth-place finish. In 2000, the Peach Belt sent four teams to the NCAA tournament, with conference co-champion Kennesaw State University losing in the national title game. “There is no ‘day off’ in the PBC,” said Gray. “You just have to take it one game at a time, and then the big games will take care of themselves. These players have already been through the Peach Belt wars, and they have a good knowledge of what it will take to win.” FMU will open conference play with a March 16 doubleheader at Columbus State University.
“The seniors on this squad came in four years ago and helped re-establish the Patriot softball program,” said Gray, “ I would thoroughly enjoy seeing them go out on a high note with a 40-win season and a playoff appearance. It would give the players some well-deserved recognition, as well as the entire program.”
FMU will host its annual Patriot Invitational Tournament, March 9-11, at the Freedom Florence Softball Complex.