LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN -- A new era is set to begin for the Covenant softball program in 2017. Under the direction of first-year head coach Christine Engbers, the Lady Scots get their 10th season underway on Saturday with a doubleheader against Rust starting at 1 p.m. at home.
Despite the coaching change, Covenant is a team filled with experience as 13 players return from last season's 18-21-1 squad.
"I think they are hungry to win at this point," said Engbers, who was a four-year standout on the diamond at Covenant and was the full-time assistant coach last season before taking over the program. "I've tried to up the competition level in practice and they seem to be thriving in that environment. Everyone is fighting for their spots."
All three of Covenant's top leaders in batting average from a year ago return. As a team, the Lady Scots hit .321 and scored 208 runs last season.
Junior Shannon Schmitt is the team's leading returning hitter as she paced the Lady Scots with a .402 average to go with two homers and 25 RBIs last year. Senior Jordan Brett is coming off a season where she hit .381 with 18 RBIs. Schmitt and Brett should provide the power in the middle of the order. Junior Joni Johnson also returns after hitting .348 with 17 runs batted in a season ago and fellow junior Kat Andrews looks to get more at-bats this year after hitting .400 in 25 official at-bats a year ago.
But Engbers is looking for more than just power out of her top hitters. "We're looking for a good combination of speed and power," Engbers noted. "We need the top of the order to get on and use their speed then have the middle of the order at least move them along, if not drive them in."
Other returners that could also make an impact in the lineup during the year include senior Kaitlyn Sirmons, sophomores Madalyn Ames, Carlin Labuzan and Megan Wardlaw along with juniors Shade Epes and Jami Johnson.
Freshmen Casey Grover (Sneads, Fla.), Madyson Gibbins (Powder Springs, Ga.) and Kirsten Aanensen (Canton, Ga.) along with Caylee Marks (LaFayette, Ga.), Erika Mast (Marietta, Ga.) and Hannah Talley (Powder Springs, Ga.) look to provide that speed and timely hitting that Engbers is looking for out of her lineup.
Added Engbers about her lineup, "We are also trying to be a little bit more aggressive, whether it's taking the extra base or getting the lead out we want more aggressiveness."
Pitching depth is something that Engbers has this year and she is looking for overall consistency out of her staff. Last year saw five different pitchers throw at least 14 innings and that could be the case once again in 2017.
Junior Cris Gant tossed 77.2 innings last year and led the team with a 7-7 record with 67 strikeouts. Sophomore Carsyn Stone came on in the latter half of the year and pitched well going 4-3 with a team-leading 3.80 ERA in 59 innings of work. Junior Tyler Epes started 11 games a season ago and threw four complete-games. Freshman Sarah Huskey (Seminole, Fla.) could also see significant time in the circle.
"Consistency is the key with this group of pitchers," Engbers said. "We will ride whoever can be the most consistent."
Engbers has taken the approach this year of setting small, attainable goals from the start of practice through the year for her team. Covenant was picked to finish sixth in the USA South's West Division in the league's annual preseason coaches' poll. But Engbers wants her team to focus on achieving the little things and having those build up.
"We are trying to take just one step at a time right now," said the first-year head coach. "Little baby steps to get better every day we are out there."
As a first-year head coach, Engbers is also looking for her team to continue to develop its chemistry as a group. "They want to be a more cohesive group," Engbers said of her team.
Covenant will face two preseason nationally-ranked opponents during the non-conference portion of the schedule in Birmingham Southern (Feb. 14) and Berry (Feb. 22). Covenant will travel to USA South West Division favorite Piedmont on April 1.
The USA South Tournament will begin on April 7 with the top six teams in each division qualifying. The top three seeds in each division will host a three-game series during that weekend with the winners advancing to a double-elimination tournament on April 13-15 in LaGrange, Ga., to determine the league's automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.
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