Pirates’ softball ready to swing into action

Published 2:05 am Friday, February 6, 2009

By Staff
ECU Sports Information
The preseason votes have been calculated and it’s safe to say that the East Carolina softball team has positioned itself on the national radar screen. A likely reason: Eight starters and 13 letterwinners return from last year’s squad that earned a berth in the NCAA Regionals, where it recorded the program’s first-ever postseason victory and a narrow 2-1 loss to eventual Women’s College World Series participant Louisiana-Lafayette.
To begin 2009, the team has received votes in both the USA Today/NFCA and ESPN.com/USA Softball preseason polls for the first time in program history. East Carolina has not been ranked in the Top 25 of the USA Today/NFCA poll since 2000 and has never been slotted into the ESPN.com/USA Softball poll.
Conference USA foes have also recognized the potential of this year’s team, as ECU was tabbed for second place in the league for the second-straight year. On both occasions, the Pirates have trailed Houston in the preseason coaches’ poll.
Beyond the returning experience on this year’s team, a key reason for the high expectations is the work of head coach Tracey Kee, who enters her 23rd season as a part of the ECU softball program. She spent four years (1987-90) as a standout player, six (1991-96) as an assistant coach and now enters her 13th (1997-present) as the head coach. All told, her impact on the program has been immense. Since ECU began fastpitch softball in 1984, the Pirates have recorded 931 victories, with Kee being a part of 852 of those wins, including passing the 500-win plateau in 2008.
Kee has plenty of help in the dugout again this year, with associate head coach Natalie Kozlowski returning for her ninth season with the program and graduate assistant coach Keli Harrell entering her second year.
Kozlowski is a proven offensive guru as her squads dominate the ECU record books, occupying first or second-place in 10 of 11 categories. In 2008, the Pirates led Conference USA in hit by pitches, placed second in hits, runs batted in, total bases, plate appearances, at bats and stolen bases and finished third in runs scored and sacrifice bunts.
Harrell has proven herself invaluable to East Carolina’s pitching staff. Last year, after 2007 Freshman-of-the-Year Toni Paisley was lost to injury just a month into the season, Harrell helped the group rebound to collect 37 wins while posting five shutouts and a 3.92 earned run average.
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 must also rely on consistent defense. Last season, ECU’s .980 fielding percentage led C-USA and was third-best in the nation, trailing only Women’s College World Series runner-up Texas A&M (.983) and Missouri State (.981). The .980 mark was also the 11th-best in NCAA history.
The Pirates return three of four infield starters, having only lost second baseman Erin St. Ledger to graduation. Two seniors and three juniors make up the core of the extremely experienced group.
Anchoring first base, as she has for the past three years, is senior Jessica Johnson, who is in the top 10 in three ECU offensive career categories and in the top 20 in two C-USA offensive career categories. During her three years as a Pirate, she has started 182 of her 183 games played, with all but one start coming at first base.
Joining Johnson on the infield are three of the Pirates’ four players from Hawai’i: third baseman Cristen Aona, shortstop Kaui Tom and second baseman Charina Sumner, all juniors. Aona has started every game of her career at the hot corner. She was last season’s team leader in batting average and assists, and provided a two-run home run in the NCAA Regional contest against Mississippi Valley State that led the Pirates to their first-ever NCAA Tournament win.
ECU will rely on Tom and Sumner to form a solid middle infield. Tom, a 2007 Conference USA All-Freshman Team selection, showed her reliable glove last season en route to collecting 120 assists, second on the squad to Aona. Sumner, who makes the move from the outfield, was one of the Pirates’ most efficient hitters a year ago, leading the squad with a 10-game hitting streak and 16 multiple-hit games, while only striking out 18 times.
Senior Angel Barrella and sophomore Sissy Jimenez are valuable infield options for ECU as well, as both provide offensive firepower. Barrella produced a .305 batting average in her 40 starts as a designated player a year ago, the second-highest average among Pirate starters. Jimenez also showed off her offensive skills, collecting her first collegiate RBI when she appeared as a pinch hitter against Southern Miss and knocked in the game-winning run in the bottom of the seventh for a 3-2 walk-off victory.
Junior transfer Nicole Jordan also looks to get into the mix during her first year with the program. She finished her Pitt Community College career with a .453 batting average, 59 runs batted in and 54 stolen bases.
Speedy junior Christina Merrida is a key to ECU’s outfield defense, as well as a spark for the offense. She started 67 games in centerfield last year while collecting 81 putouts and seven assists without committing an error. At the plate, her 3-for-3 performance last year against Mississippi Valley State helped the Pirates earn their victory in the NCAA Regional.
Senior Sarah Bibee also provides experience to the unit, as she has appeared in 142 games over her three years without committing an error. Junior transfer Marina Gusman-Brown, the fourth member of the squad from Hawai’i, has plenty of experience of her own, despite this being her first year for East Carolina. Gusman-Brown played her first two collegiate seasons at Eastern Arizona College, where she was a two-time First-Team All-Arizona Community College Athletic Association (ACCAA), All-Region and All-America selection as well as the ACCAA Player-of-the-Year as a sophomore.
The sophomore duo of Jillian Gallagher and Suzanne Riggs are also in the fold after gaining valuable experience as freshmen. Gallagher appeared in 40 games and batted .429 as a pinch hitter last year with Riggs splitting time in the pitching circle and in the outfield.
The big story of the 2009 pitching staff is the comeback of Paisley from last year’s injury. Conference USA coaches voted the redshirt sophomore to the league’s preseason team. As a freshman, Paisley posted a 21-5 record and led the Pirates in wins, ERA (1.57), opposing batting average (.192), innings pitched (191.1), strikeouts (211) and appearances (34).
Not to be forgotten in the Paisley return, however, is senior Brooke Swann, who carried the majority of the load for the Pirates last season in Paisley’s absence. Swann appeared in 54 games, the most in a year in school history, and finished 2008 with a 25-20 record, the ninth-most wins in a single season in Pirate history. Her 25 victories also placed her 30th in the NCAA for wins on the year. After last season’s performance, Swann now stands in the ECU top 10 in eight career pitching categories.
Rounding out the staff are Priscilla Velasquez and Caitlin Wainright, this year’s only freshmen. Velasquez guided La Quinta (Calif.) High School to a second-place finish in the Desert Valley League as a freshman and sophomore before winning the first league softball title in school history as a junior. Wainright, a Greenville, N.C., native, was the Coastal 3A Conference Player-of-the-Year and County Pitcher-of-the-Year as a senior when she guided South Central High School to the state championship.
On the receiving end of this year’s pitches is likely to be junior Tiffany Shaw, who logged a career-high 12 starts at the position a season ago. She racked up 60 putouts in 2008 and has yet to record an error in her Pirate career. Bibee will provide a back up option to Shaw behind the dish.