The USC Upstate softball team returns seven starters and 10 seniors overall from a team that won 46 games in 2014 and finished the season one spot out of a Top 25 national ranking in both national Top 25 polls. The Spartans will enter the 2015 campaign within striking distance of a Top 25 ranking after earning several votes in both the USA Today/NFCA and ESPN.com/USA Softball Top 25 polls.
Upstate begins the season two spots out of the Top 25 in the NFCA poll, earning 21 votes as the second team receiving votes. If the poll was extended beyond 25 spots, the Spartans would be ranked No. 27 in the nation. They were behind No. 25 DePaul and James Madison in a battle for the Top 25. Upstate claimed 20 votes in the USA Softball poll and would be ranked No. 28 if the poll was extended beyond 25 spots. The Spartans trail No. 25 Texas, Wisconsin and DePaul in earning a spot in the Top 25.
“I think it says a lot about our program and the reputation we have built that we begin the season just outside of the Top 25,” said Upstate head coach Chris Hawkins. “Rankings are nice to achieve because they are a measure of success and respect. But, the preseason rankings are largely based on what you have done last year and maybe the year before as well. We have to come out and work hard in practice, play with pride and play to our ability in order to be successful. That’s what got us to this position of respect and that’s what will lead us to reach the goals we have set for our program.”
Last year, Upstate was ranked in both major Top 25 polls for seven weeks of the season, including the final six weeks heading into the NCAA Tournament. Prior to last season, the Spartans had only been ranked in the Top 25 one time and that came on April 9, 2013 in the NFCA poll. Following the completion of the NCAA Tournament last year, Upstate finished one spot (No. 26) out of the Top 25 in both polls for its highest finish ever in the national rankings.
Upstate will open the season on Saturday, Feb. 7 when it travels to Elon, N.C., to take on Elon and Radford at 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. The Spartans will return home the following weekend to host the Upstate Classic at Cyrill Stadium Feb. 13-15.
Upstate is coming off a 46-9 season in 2014, a year that saw the team win the most games in program history since moving to Division I for the 2008 season and one shy of the all-time mark of 47 set in 2007. The Spartans also won their second consecutive A-Sun title by storming through the regular season with a 22-2 mark to claim its second-ever regular season title. The regular season championship followed the 2013 A-Sun Tournament title. Both championships resulted in Upstate making an appearance in the NCAA Tournament, making back-to-back trips to the Tuscaloosa Regional hosted by Alabama. Alabama was the defending national champion in 2013 and was the national runner-up in 2014.
Upstate returns third team All-American Shellie Robinson to a team chalked full of veteran leadership. The entire projected starting infield consists of seniors with first team all-conference performers Cheyenne Griffin (first) and Kendall Settlemyre (third) at the corner infield positions and second team all-conference pick Dana Landers (shortstop) and Kaitlyn Jaeger (second) at the middle infield spots. Robinson will lead the outfield as the starter in center, while Hayley Reinfeld and Aly Schneider, both seniors, will battle for the starting spot in right field. Paige Matthews, a junior college transfer with a wealth of experience, and senior Paris Prusak will battle for time behind the plate, while Ryan Rector, an A-Sun All-Freshman pick last season, looks to have a lead on the starting spot in left field. Lexi Shubert will lead a young pitching staff. Shubert was the A-Sun Freshman of the Year and a first team all-conference selection last season after turning in an 18-2 record and ranking among the league’s best in several statistical categories. She will be joined in the circle by two freshman pitchers, Amanda Storch and Kinsley Jennings.