Pirates softball prepares for season opener

Published 4:17 am Tuesday, February 5, 2008

By Staff
ECU Sports Information
GREENVILLE — In 2007, the East Carolina softball team put its potent offense on display, outscoring its opponents 271-129 on its way to a 40-20 record. However, it was just two runs that separated the Pirates from their first NCAA regional berth since 1999 as they fell in a tight 1-0 contest against top-seeded Houston in the Conference USA Tournament title game. With eight starters and 15 letterwinners returning from that squad, East Carolina feels optimistic about earning that coveted bid.
After finishing second in both the regular season and tournament a year ago, the Pirates are expected to do as well this season, according to the league’s head coaches. The team finished with 14 league wins, the second-most in ECU’s seven seasons as a member of C-USA.
A key reason for those expectations is the work of Kee, who enters her 12th season with ECU just three wins away from 500. However, her impact on the program began much earlier than 1996. In December, CSTV listed the Pirates as having 967 wins in just 22 seasons, the eighth-most in NCAA history. Kee has been part of 843 of those wins as a player, assistant and head coach.
Kee has plenty of help in the dugout as associate head coach Natalie Kozlowski returns for her eighth season with the program and first-year student assistant coach Keli Harrell joins the staff after an illustrious career in the Pirate uniform. Kozlowski is a proven offensive guru as her squads dominate the record books.
She is responsible for teams that ranked first or second in 10-of-11 categories. After guiding the Pirates to a record 57 home runs in 2006, her 2007 team did one better, belting 58. Harrell will undoubtedly prove invaluable to East Carolina’s pitching staff as she holds the all-time C-USA strikeout record with 943. She also sits first in C-USA appearances while appearing second in wins, saves and innings pitched.
If the Pirates are to contend for their first C-USA title and first conference championship since winning three consecutive Big South titles from 1997-99, they will have to rely on their consistent defensive play. ECU was by far the best defensive club in C-USA last season, compiling a fielding percentage of .977. Additionally, that mark was tied for the second-best in the nation along with national champion Arizona.
The Pirates return their entire infield from a year ago, highlighted by C-USA preseason honoree Jessica Johnson. The junior first baseman and C-USA first-team member led ECU and C-USA with 17 home runs in 2007, the second-highest total in school history.
Her final home run of the season sent the Pirates to their first-ever C-USA championship game, earning her all-tournament accolades. Johnson also proved to be a defensive stalwart, leading the team with 314 putouts and committing just three errors in 338 chances.
Junior Angel Barrella, who has given Kee valuable innings as a freshman and sophomore, and freshman Sissy Jimenez, the two-time Valley Oak League Offensive Player-of-the-Year, will help Johnson, giving the squad three solid options at first base. Senior Erin St. Ledger will again provide solid leadership at second base as her flexibility allows her to make key plays. Sophomore Kaui Tom, who earned a spot on the all-freshman team in 2007, anchors the infield at short as she has a proven knack for finding the ball, even when it is hit seemingly out of her reach. Senior Paige Baggett will share the duty with Tom as she has contributed consistent play throughout her career. Another sophomore, Cristen Aona, will man the hot corner. Her defensive prowess puts the rest of the squad at ease as they can always rely on her to produce an out. Behind the plate, junior Vanessa Moreno returns to assume the catching duties, having split time with Joyce Roodenburg a season ago. Her strong arm produced 164 putouts, the third-most on the team. Sophomore Tiffany Shaw will provide another option as she gained valuable experience last season, seeing action in 22 contests.
East Carolina enters 2008 with depth in the outfield, returning six strong athletes. Sophomore and C-USA preseason selection Charina Sumner, along with junior Sarah Bibee will roam the right side. Sumner, a Kailua, Hawai’i native, turned in a strong rookie campaign, earning second-team All C-USA honors as well as All-Freshman and All-Tournament accolades. She led the team in numerous categories, including runs, hits, triples, stolen bases, plate appearances, at bats, starts and games played.
Sophomore Christina Merrida will man center field while senior Stacey Andrews will take on left field duties. Veteran senior Beth Nolan and decorated newcomers Jillian Gallagher and Suzanne Riggs round out the solid group that has proven to be among the nation’s best defensive tandems.
While it will likely prove difficult to fill the void in the circle left by Harrell, the Pirates have a stable of pitchers ready to prove themselves among C-USA’s best. Sophomore Toni Paisley anchors the staff, having been named C-USA Freshman-of-the-Year in 2007. She racked up a 21-5 record on her way to earning second-team All C-USA honors, All-Freshman and All-Tournament accolades and North Carolina Collegiate Sports Information Association (NCCSIA) All-State recognition. Paisley compiled a 1.57 ERA, currently the fourth-best career mark in program history, as well as hurling 211 strikeouts, the fifth-most in a single Pirate season. She also made her presence felt on the national level, placing in the top-60 in ERA, strikeouts and victories.
While Paisley may see a majority of the time in the circle, junior Brooke Swann and freshman Britt Howell are also ready to provide consistent play. Swann, who turned in a C-USA-leading ERA of 1.52 her freshman season, will give East Carolina more options as the season takes its toll. Additionally, the left-handed Howell gives the Pirates the ability to mix up their looks. She joins the program holding the prep strikeout record in the state of Washington, fanning 1,128 batters in four seasons at Concrete High School.
Seven NCAA regional participants from last season and the program’s first-ever trip to California constitute the 2008 schedule The Pirates host three regular-season tournaments at the ECU Softball Field as the squad will play no less than 26 contests in Greenville. NCAA regional qualifiers North Carolina, Penn State, BYU, Georgia, Stanford, Virginia Tech and defending Conference USA champion Houston help make the schedule the toughest in school history.
ECU will open at the Carolina Classic in Chapel Hill for the second-consecutive season as it squares off against North Carolina, North Carolina Central, Kent State and George Washington on Feb. 8-10. The Pirates seek their first win against the Tar Heels since taking an exciting extra-inning affair in Greenville two years ago.
The home portion of the schedule will commence Feb. 15-17 with the first of three tournaments at the ECU Softball Field as the Pirates will take on Boston College, Maine and Ohio in the Pirate Invitational. The Eagles are one of three ACC teams that East Carolina will face this season. ECU remains at home the following weekend as it hosts the Pirate Classic. The tournament features opponents from the Big East and Big Ten in Syracuse, Penn State and Purdue.
The Pirates usher in March the next weekend with their third-consecutive home tournament as Radford, Liberty, Fordham and Delaware travel to Greenville for the Pirate Clash. Then, after opening conference play in Orlando against UCF, ECU heads to Georgia for the Bulldog Classic where the Pirates will contend with Georgia and North Florida. East Carolina revisits its home field March 15-16, welcoming Southern Miss for a conference series before making the longest trek in program history as the Pirates participate in the Stanford Invitational. The field consists of the Cardinal, BYU, Princeton and Wisconsin.
The remainder of the conference schedule features road series against Tulsa, Houston and Memphis while Marshall, UTEP and UAB will make the trip to Greenville.
In addition to its conference contests, ECU plays a number of mid-week doubleheaders both on the road against North Carolina, UNC Greensboro and Virginia Tech and at home versus UNC- Wilmington and Campbell. The 2008 C-USA Softball Championship takes place May 8-10 at the Cougar Softball Stadium in Houston. New for this season, the tournament assumes a single elimination format as all nine squads will qualify for the championship. The winner receives an automatic bid to the 2008 NCAA Softball Championship.