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AU softball team looks to repeat as E8 champs, return to NCAAs
3/04/11

ALFRED, NY — The Alfred University softball team, fresh off its winningest season, is poised to make an encore in 2011. There is plenty of reason for optimism for head coach Gino Olivieri and the rest of the Saxons as they try to defend their Empire 8 Conference title.

There will be holes to fill, as AU lost three four-year starters — second baseman and former Empire 8 Player of the Year Karen Folts, shortstop Jesika LeBarron, and centerfielder Shannon Mather —to graduation. But the cupboard was hardly left bare by their departure, as All-American utility player, junior Nicole Hedrick (Albany, NY/Catholic Central), ace pitcher, senior Chelsey Cary (Corfu, NY/Pembroke), and 2010 Empire Rookie of the Year, sophomore catcher Emily Fenton (West Deptford, NJ/West Deptford), lead a team that returns seven of 10 starters and boasts a talented 11-member recruiting class.

Expectations are high for the Saxons, ranked 23rd in the National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) Division III preseason national rankings, and the team is focused on duplicating the success it enjoyed last season.

“I think it’s nice that we’re ranked,” Olivieri said. “Every game we play, we want to win. We want to win the Empire 8 title, the Empire 8 tournament and go on to the NCAA championships. Those are our goals.”

The Saxons have been on the rise since Olivieri was hired prior to the 2006 season. The team has increased its victory total each of his first five years, culminating in a 37-8 record in 2010. The Saxons’ 37 wins set a new single-season record and AU won a share of its first-ever Empire 8 crown and later earned an at-large berth to the NCAA Division III championship tournament, the first in school history. Along the way, the Saxons earned their first-ever national ranking and defeated ranked teams three times.

Replacing the offensive output of the three departed starters will be a challenge. LeBarron is the team’s all-time leader in hits, runs, RBIs and homeruns and Folts’s career numbers weren’t far behind. But AU does return its top two pitchers in Hedrick and Cary, along with its top three hitters from a season ago.

Hedrick had a record-breaking season en route to becoming the program’s first-ever All-American (NFCA Second Team) and the Empire 8 Player of the Year. Batting leadoff, she led team in batting (.429), hits (school-record 66) runs (school-record 46), triples (three), homeruns (nine) and stolen bases (a single-season record 25 in 27 attempts) and drove in 32 runs (second on the team). Hedrick was a force in the pitcher’s circle, going 19-4 (with the 19 wins setting a new school single-season mark) with a 1.32 ERA and five shutouts.

Hedrick will again be positioned in the leadoff spot, Olivieri said. When she’s not pitching, she will be competing for time at shortstop, a position she’s played a handful of times.

Cary was equally impressive pitching. She went 18-3 with a 1.09 ERA and was named a First Team Empire 8 all-star and an NFCA Second Team Northeast Region pick. She hurled a pair of no-hitters and had a school-record 138 strikeouts while tying the school mark for shutouts with six.

Olivieri expects pitching will be solid. “As long as (Cary and Hedrick) stay healthy, I’m very optimistic about our pitching,” he said.

Fenton batted .328 with 22 runs, 28 RBIs and four homeruns on her way to being named the Empire 8’s top rookie and a Second Team conference all-star. An NFCA First Team regional all-star, she was outstanding behind the plate, throwing out 12 of 30 base stealers (40 percent) and picking off five runners.

Hedrick and Fenton have plenty of support offensively in junior leftfielder Angela Netta (Rahway, NJ/Mother Seton Regional), junior third baseman Molly Shepherd (Camillus, NY/West Genesee), senior first baseman Ashley Passaro (Long Beach, NY/Long Beach) and senior designated player Shanna Ewoldt (Tuscon, AZ/Waubansie Valley).

Netta, who made only a handful of starts and was used primarily as a pinch runner in 2009, made the most of her opportunity last year. She started 44 games and batted .378 (second on the team) with 45 hits (third) and 28 runs. She had three home runs and 20 RBIs, a .487 slugging percentage, a .415 on-base percentage, and stole eighth bases in nine attempts. Netta was named an Empire 8 First Team all-star and an NFCA First Team Northeast Region all-star.

Shepherd was an NFCA Second Team Northeast Region all-star and earned honorable mention from the Empire 8. She had 52 hits (second on the team; third on AU’s all–time single season list), scored 38 runs (second on the team; second all-time at AU) and drove in 26. Shepherd had two triples and three homeruns, slugged .552 (second on the team) and had an on-base percentage of .405.

Passaro rebounded nicely from a sub-par 2009 season, when she struggled with injury. An Empire 8 and ECAC all-star as a freshman in 2008, when she batted .457 with 34 RBIs, Passaro saw her numbers dip in 2009: .214 average, nine RBIs. This year, she hit .320 with 13 runs, three home runs and a team-leading 33 runs batted in. Ewoldt, who saw action in only six games in 2009 after transferring to AU from Augustana, played in 37 contests this year and hit .274 with 23 runs, three homers and 20 RBIs.

“Offensively, we’re very strong,” Olivieri commented. “We have some very good hitters, and we have a lot of speed, so scoring runs shouldn’t be a problem.”

Senior rightfielder Brittany Loucks (Addison, NY/Addison) played in 39 games in 2010, making 28 starts. She was limited to 22 at-bats and had four hits, scored four runs and drove in four. Sophomore catcher/utility player Hana Gross (Union, NJ/Union) will be counted on to play a greater role this season. Limited to occasional pinch-hitting duty for the first half of her freshman season, Gross saw action in 18 games and made six late starts, finishing with a .346 batting average (nine for 26) with six runs scored and five driven in.

Olivieri expects Gross, who has developed into a solid hitter and backstop, will share time behind the plate with Fenton, who caught a lion’s share of the innings in 2010. The coach envisions the two alternating behind the plate and as designated players.

Sophomore infielder Kassandra Corsi (Willoughby, OH/Willoughby) will compete for one of the middle infield positions. A starter in 19 games in 2010 — early in the season and while Folts was out with an injury — Corsi bated .256 with 18 runs and 11 RBIs. Sophomore outfielder Laura Haas (Buffalo, NY/Immaculata) played in 11 games, primarily as a pinch runner, and had three hits and two runs.

Defensively, there will be some question marks early in the year.

“We should be strong defensively, but you can’t help but be concerned when you lose two all-region performers in the middle of your infield and your starting centerfielder,” Olivieri said, referring to Folts, LeBarron and Mather. “Time will tell who settles in at second base and shortstop.”

Answers to those questions could come from a group of 1l new recruits, which includes 10 freshmen. Freshmen include utility players Melissa Montano (West Covina, CA/Walnut), Shannon Flaherty (East Patchogue, NY/Bellport), Jacqueline Tomisman (Schenectady, NY/Niskayuna), and Sara Crowley (Stillwater, NY/Stillwater); outfielders Alexis Caruso (Coram, NY/Longwood); Rachel Guszick (Sparrowbush, NY/Port Jervis), Danielle Mastropierro (Randolph, NJ/Randolph) and Breeal Delgado (Rancho Cucamonga, CA/Los Osos); pitcher Victoria Kramp (Yardley, PA/Pennsbury); and shortstop Stephanie Arguello (Placentia, CA/Vista del Lago). Sophomore second baseman Maressa Mistretta (Shirley, NY/Longwood) joins the team as a transfer.

Olivieri expects Delgado to step right in at centerfield, and Guszick will compete for time in right field with Loucks. Flaherty’s versatility allows her to play any of the outfield positions, and Caruso and Mastropierro will vie for time in the outfield as well. Mistretta and Montano will compete for the second baseman’s job and Corsi, Arguello and Hedrick will compete for time at short.

“The freshmen are talented and they’ll push the returnees,” Olivieri said. “We really have is solid depth at all positions. There are some freshmen who are going to step up and see time right away.”

AU opens the season with a 10-game trip to Florida, primarily against Division II competition. After a March 22 doubleheader at Pitt-Bradford, the Saxons play four more doubleheaders on the road (including the Empire 8 opener April 4 at Nazareth) before playing their home-opening doubleheader April 9 against conference rival Ithaca. Olivieri and his charges are looking forward to repeating their success from 2010 and making a return to the NCAAs.

“I’m really excited about this season. This could be the best team I’ve had, and that’s saying something with what we did last year.”