FLORENCE, S.C. – Francis Marion University has been picked to finish third in the race for the Peach Belt Conference 2006 softball title, according to the annual preseason poll by the conference’s coaches.
USC Upstate received six of 10 first-place votes and has been chosen as the preseason favorite with 78 points, while Columbus State University garnered the remaining four first-place votes and finished second with 72 points.
The third-place selection is the highest for the Patriots since FMU was tabbed for third in 1998.
FMU recorded 63 points, followed by Georgia College & State University (49), Augusta State University and North Georgia College & State University (both 40), UNC Pembroke and USC Aiken (both 33), Armstrong Atlantic State University (30), and Lander University (12). Coaches were not allowed to rank their own teams in the preseason poll.
Second-year FMU head coach Stacey Johnson welcomes back eight letterwinners, including six position starters and two starting pitchers, from the 2005 squad that finished 36-14, the fourth-highest win total in team history, and narrowly missed earning the program’s first-ever bid to the NCAA Tournament. FMU finished conference play during the regular season tied for fifth place.
Leading the returnees are All-PBC and All-Region shortstop Allie Aleman (2005 stats: .404, 4 HRs, 33 RBIs). Catcher Jamie Wiggins (.239, 5 HRs, 14 RBIs) is the squad’s lone senior. Also returning are junior infielder Tatjana Slawson (.301), who has driven in 91 runs over her first two seasons, junior third baseman Janine Allen (.347), junior right fielder Jenna Sexton (.324), and sophomore first baseman Monica Wofford (.299, 7 HRs, 31 RBIs).
Returning on the mound are junior right-hander Jessica Johnson (20-9 record, 1.87 earned run average) and sophomore righty Meg Thomy (5-2, 2.66 ERA). In 2005, Johnson became the first Patriot hurler in 16 seasons to reach 20 victories.
For the second straight year, the Patriots hit a school-record 42 home runs, while ranking 19th in NCAA Division II in slugging percentage.
Eight freshmen comprise the squad’s newcomers for 2006.
Francis Marion has averaged nearly 33 wins per season over the past 11 campaigns. The Patriots' 50-game schedule includes nine home doubleheaders and the annual Patriot Invitational Tournament, a three-day, 34-team event at the Freedom Florence Softball Complex, March 10-12. The PBC Softball Tournament will be played April 21-23 in Aiken, S.C.
FMU opens its season Sunday (Feb. 5) with a home doubleheader against Anderson College at 1:30 p.m.