FLORENCE, S.C. – The Francis Marion University women’s softball team will open its 2004 season on Wednesday (Feb. 11) when the Patriots of second-year head coach Jack Byerley play a 1 p.m. doubleheader at St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg, N.C.
Byerley has at his services four returning letterwinners, including three returning position starters, from last season’s 36-9 squad that equaled the third-highest win total in team history, earned the program’s first national ranking as an NCAA Division II member, and placed fourth during the Peach Belt Conference regular season (after being tabbed to finish eighth in the preseason coaches’ poll). Francis Marion has averaged 32 wins per season over the past nine campaigns, and last year’s 11 Peach Belt Conference wins equaled a program single-season high.
Leading the returnees are All-Region shortstop Heather Garrison and All-Region utility selection Natalie Taylor. In her first season as a Patriot, Garrison hit .390 with four home runs and a team-leading 46 runs batted in. The Hartsville native also led FMU with 17 doubles and was second on the squad in runs scored (43) and slugging percentage (.596). She recorded a .428 on-base percentage and was a perfect five-for-five in stolen bases.
At the plate, Taylor batted .380 with a .455 on-base percentage, 26 runs scored, and 10 RBIs, while on the pitching mound, she was 6-1 with two saves and a 1.25 earned run average in 16 appearances. The lone returning FMU pitcher, opponents hit only .218 against Taylor in 2003.
Other returning starters include junior center fielder Betsy Bouknight (.323, 41 runs, 19 of 22 stolen bases) and junior left fielder Amber Gaines (.233, 11 RBIs). Bouknight has 47 stolen bases in 52 attempts during her first two years in the Patriot lead-off position.
Top newcomers include sophomore catcher Jamie Wiggins, a Marion native who transferred from Presbyterian College; sophomore outfielder Ashleigh Duffy, a transfer from Okaloosa-Walton Community College; freshman infielder Tatjana Slawson (North Charleston, S.C.); freshman infielder Janine Allen (Lilburn, Ga.); freshman designated hitter Mina Roof (Charleston); and freshman outfielder Jenna Sexton (Marietta, Ga.). Two other local products, freshman outfielder Kerry Hendrix of Murrells Inlet and freshman infielder Tiffaney McCutcheon of Olanta, round out the very young squad.
“With a young infield, Wiggins was a big addition,” Byerley said. “She has some collegiate experience, and did a great job in the fall. We have allowed her the right to call her own pitches.”
A pair of freshmen right-handers, Sam Goff (Patterson, N.Y.) and Jessica Johnson (Palm City, Fla.), will join Taylor on the Patriot pitching staff. Goff will get the starting nod in Wednesday’s first game.
“As a team, we are more athletic this year, and definitely faster. We lost 20 home runs (of the team’s total of 24) from last year’s lineup, so although we may not hit as many balls over the fence, I think we will hit more balls into the gaps. We will steal a little bit more, as well as hitting/bunting and running. The one thing we must do is score runs. That will allow our young pitchers to make some mistakes as they mature and improve. We don’t want them to feel the pressure of having to win games 2-1 or 1-0.”
“I am looking forward to starting the season,” Byerley added. “Young people always make starting a year fun. The new players played well during the fall and adjusted to the college game. All that remains is to see how they handle the pressure of the Peach Belt Conference schedule.”
The Patriots were tabbed to finish seventh in the PBC according to this year’s preseason coaches’ poll. Four PBC member schools appear in the NFCA preseason Top 25 poll, including 2003 national runner-up Georgia College & State University.
The Patriots' 53-game schedule includes 13 home doubleheaders and the annual Patriot Invitational Tournament, a three-day 33-team event at the Freedom Florence Softball Complex, March 12-14.
St. Andrews returns 10 of 14 players from a 26-24 squad.