LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN -- After a tough couple of seasons, the Covenant softball program is ready to turn the corner in 2016. Covenant begins the year on Saturday, Feb. 13 with a doubleheader at Wesleyan starting at 3 p.m. in Macon, Ga.
Under eighth-year head coach Sara Russell, the Lady Scots bring back every key player from last year's team and a recruiting class that yielded some players that will add depth and talent to the program.
"I'm really looking forward to the year," Russell said. "We have great hopes of turning the corner this year. Our freshmen from last year have matured and know what to expect heading into their sophomore year. We have a really experienced and talented team."
All nine position starters return as do two pitchers who combined to start 25 of 32 games a season ago. The roster features three seniors, two juniors, eight sophomores and five freshmen making it a young team, but a squad that has plenty of college experience.
Covenant brings back junior All-USA South performer Jordan Brett and senior Morgan Lane. Brett and Lane have been forces in the middle of the lineup the last two years and Russell expects even more production out of her top two hitters this year. Brett hit .438, a single-season program record, last season with four home runs and 33 RBIs and was named to the All-USA South second team. Lane, an All-USA player in 2014, was also impressive with a .396 average with four homers and 24 runs batted in. Brett will handle third base, while Lane will start at first base.
"From Jordan and Morgan, we're looking for more production and consistency this year," Russell added. "We want them to drive the ball even more than last year and have a high slugging percentage."
Rounding out the infield up the middle will be sophomore shortstop Kasey Hart and sophomore second baseman Jami Johnson. The duo showed flashes of promise in their rookie seasons, both at the plate and in the field, and Russell expects that to rise this year with more experience.
In the outfield, senior Madison Quirk will man center field. Quirk, a three-year starter in center, has hit over .300 in each of her first three seasons, including a .315 clip last year, and is a consistent performer in the outfield.
At catcher, sophomores Shannon Schmitt and Shade Epes look to be the two contributors. Both showed their skills behind the plate a year ago and offer Russell and her coaching staff some options offensively and on the base paths.
"This might be one of the hardest years to make out a lineup," Russell said. "We have so much depth with players that can all contribute and offer different sets of skills to the lineup. It's a good problem to have."
Adding to the talent pool are utility players in sophomore Joni Johnson and freshman Carlin Labuzan. Johnson was effective both at the plate and in the circle a year ago as she hit .309 and had an earned run average of 3.74 with four wins and two saves. Labuzan was an All-State player in Florida and adds more talent for Russell.
"Joni will help in the circle as a reliever again as she did well in that role last year," Russell said. "She also has a consistent bat that we want to get into the lineup when she's not pitching."
In the circle, sophomore Cris Gant looks to be the consistent starter for Russell. Gant showed plenty of talent and promise in her freshman year before injuries hampered her efforts in the second half of the year. Still, Gant struck out 77 batters in just 58 innings of work and picked up four victories.
"I have high expectations for Cris," Russell noted. "She has the talent to be one of the top pitchers in the conference. She will be the workhorse in the circle this year for us."
Sophomore Tyler Epes saw significant time at pitcher last year with a team-high 59.1 innings pitched and will look to contribute in similar ways this year. Freshman Carsyn Stone and sophomore Kat Andrews could also see some time in the circle.
Other freshmen include Megan Wardlaw and Amber Grimes. Both players provide added depth to the roster both in the field and at pitcher. Russell has been impressed with Wardlaw's bat and Grimes can play multiple positions.
All the talent aside, Russell says the biggest aspects of the game her program has worked on since the fall is the team's mentality and producing consistent efforts. "The skill level is definitely there, but we've worked hard on developing the mental side," Russell said. "We have great aspirations for this team, but need to play well consistently."
Covenant's mental toughness will be put to the test this season with a challenging schedule. The Lady Scots face regional powers Berry and Birmingham Southern in non-conference play, both on the road. In USA South play, Covenant will host perennial conference favorites Piedmont and Averett.
"I think it's a well-rounded schedule," Russell noted. "Some tough non-conference teams with Berry and Birmingham Southern. I like being able to have Averett and Piedmont at home this year, which will be huge."
After playing Wesleyan on Saturday, the Lady Scots open the home portion of their schedule with doubleheaders against Berea (Feb. 19) and Mount St. Joseph (Feb. 20). Covenant will play 22 of its 40 scheduled contests at home.
Home games this year will feature live stats for all games, while live video will be offered for select contests. All links can be found on the team's schedule page or by visiting athletics.covenant.edu/live
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