Feb. 6, 2008
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - For the 2008 UAB softball team to succeed, it is going to take a team effort from a returning group of players that is eager to return to the playing field and erase last year from their memories.
"This year everything that we accomplish is going to be done as a team," head coach Marla Townsend said.
Nine letterwinners return as well as five starters, including one all-conference team selection, for the 2008 season. In addition, a talented group of eight newcomers will give the Blazers added depth both offensively and defensively.
Last season, UAB was one win short of reaching the Conference USA Tournament and with that a possible bid to play in the regional tournament.
That memory has been a focal point for during the offseason and has served as a determination factor in how the Blazers have prepared for the upcoming season.
"We are carrying that hunger and heartbreak into this year's season and letting it serve as a motivation for this season." Townsend said. "It's been the reason we have been working hard and preparing for this season harder than any season before."
The Blazers' top two pitchers, who combined to throw nearly 350 innings last year, return to make a dynamic one-two punch. Jennifer Nelson (LHP) and Kayla Harris (RHP) are expected to carry the majority of the workload this season for the Blazers.
Nelson enters the season as the UAB career strikeout leader and is in position to break career records for ERA, innings pitched and wins. "Jennifer is going to get a lot of innings this year," Townsend said. "Her ability to command three really good pitches makes it especially hard for opponents to make solid contact. She's also effective at getting ground ball outs."
A mixture of Nelson and Harris could be a useful combination for the Blazers this year with their different approaches when throwing. Nelson brings a powerful yet deceptive style to the circle, relying on damaging movement, while Harris relies more on the location of her pitches and being able to work in, out and up.
"Jennifer and Kayla really complement each other with their style of pitching," Townsend said. "I can see a lot of situations this season where both of them will pitch in one game."
Freshman Laura Callaway may also see time in the circle this season.
Andrea Rogers will assume the catching duties for the third straight season. The Pasco, Wash. native has played every game for the Blazers in her first two seasons, and has handle the duties behind the plate in all but two games.
"Offensively she is going to put up big numbers for us. She does a really good job at recognizing hitters and pitching to their weaknesses," Townsend said.
Her offensive presence along with her ability to handle the pitching staff makes Rogers one of the most formidable all around threats in the conference.
Kayla Orr will be Rogers' backup at catcher, and is expected to possibly see some playing time early in the season.
This year's infield will consist of the solid senior class up the middle with several players vying for playing time at the corner positions. Holly Krzan, a C-USA second-team selection last year, and Leigh Walker will command the infield at shortstop and second, respectively. Their senior leadership will prove vital in an infield that will see several players vying for playing time at the corner positions. Over the past two seasons, Krzan and Walker have started every game at their respective positions, which will provide stability to a young infield.
"It's going to be exciting up the middle for us this season," Townsend said. "Leigh's range continues to improve, where she covers foul line to second base. Holly controls the infield and leads us on and off the field so we are expecting another great year from her. With their leadership and experience up the middle, no matter who is playing first or third I won't be worried about our infield."
Orr and Stevie Bennett will serve as possibly backups at shortstop Natalie Mitchell will begin the season as a backup at second base. Harris will begin the season as the starting first baseman for UAB. Last season, Harris played 10 games at first. When she is pitching, however, expect a freshman trio of Amanda Allen, Callaway and Sarah Nickey are expected to share time at the position.
Cameron Skates will manage the hot corner after earning the job during the fall. A solid defensive player, Skates also brings a year of experience that will be a valuable tool. Callaway will also see time at third.
The Blazers' outfield will take on a completely new look this season, and with the combination of speed, power and defense, it will the give the Blazers great flexibility both in the outfield and at the plate. "I get really excited when I talk about our outfield," Townsend said. "Looking at where they came in at the fall and where they are now, they have taken their level of play to a new level. They all have strong arms and do a tremendous job at closing the gaps. They are an entire group of players who go all out every time."
Mary Kendall Butler is one of two outfielders returning from last season, and has one of the stronger arms in the outfield. Caley Walden steps into the role as starting center fielder. Walden has a great ability to read the ball off the bat, a skill that will give her the range needed to cover the gaps. Bennett, thought only a sophomore, brings enthusiasm and leadership and will be a solid right fielder for the Blazers.
Crumpton and Harris, played sparingly in the outfield last season. Expect Crumpton and Harris, along with Allen to be rotated early and often into the mix in the outfield.
The Blazers' lineup will be anchored by power and consistency at the top, and will have several options towards the bottom part of the lineup. "I think we will really have one of the best top-of-the-order lineups in the conference," Townsend said. "We have the speed that we are looking to get on base and the power hitters to come in and do their jobs. But we are in a strange position where one of our best power hitters is our best base runner. So I really like the look of our lineup and having the ability to insert in different aspects that fit our needs."
Walden and Bennett will serve as interchangeable leadoff hitters, in front of two-hole hitter Walker. Walker hit .288 in conference play and is primed for her best offensive season. In the three and four slots will be a combination of Krzan and Rogers, who have combined to hit 39 home runs in their careers. Krzan is second all-time at UAB in doubles (37) after setting the Blazers' single-season mark last season with 17. She drove in 33 runs while hitting .309 for the Blazers. Rogers enters the season as the Blazers' all-time home leader. Last season, she broke her single-season record for home runs (13) while also leading the team with 36 RBI.
A combination of Harris, Nelson, and Skates, Callaway, Crumpton, and Orr will fill the main part of the lineup behind Krzan and Rogers. Harris, hit three home runs last year, while Nelson saw her first significant plate appearances. The Blazers return a high percentage of their offense production with 64 percent of their runs scored and 57 percent of their RBI returning from last season.
Townsend begins her 10th as the head coach of the Blazers. She begins the year with an overall career record of 222-245 (.475) and Conference USA mark of 79-91 (.465). Joining Townsend are former Blazers Lucy Bass and Beth Mullins.
Bass begins her sixth year with the program and fifth as an assistant coach. Bass, who played for the Blazers in 2000-01, will work primarily with the pitching staff as well as assisting with administrative duties. Her understanding of the program and experience of the game will be beneficial this season.
Mullins, who spent the past two seasons as an assistant coach at Georgia Southern, returns to UAB where she will work with the slap hitters, hitters and infielders. Mullins, who ranks in the top 10 of several UAB offensive categories, played from 2001-04.
UAB will embark on a 63-game schedule in 2008, which includes four non-conference weekend tournaments, and games against seven teams from last year's NCAA regional field.
The Blazers begin their season on the road with a game against Mississippi Valley State before taking part in the first of their four non-conference tournaments.
The tournaments include the Century Bank Classic, the Seminole Classic, the Mustang Classic and the Magic City Classic.
UAB will play an eight Conference USA opponents in three-game series. The Blazers will host UCF to open C-USA play and will also play Memphis, Tulsa and Houston in Birmingham.
The Blazers open their road conference season against UTEP and will make trips to Southern Miss, Marshall and East Carolina.
UAB will play seven teams from last year's NCAA regional field, including Mississippi Valley State, California, Florida State, Mississippi State, Houston, Alabama and Cal Poly.
Home and away series are scheduled against Mississippi State, Mississippi Valley State and Alabama. The Blazers will play non-conference doubleheaders against Western Kentucky, Troy, Jacksonville State, South Alabama and Chattanooga.