After winning two straight A-Sun championships, making two consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament and returning a veteran team, the USC Upstate softball team has been picked to win the A-Sun regular season championship as the A-Sun has announced its preseason coaches poll and preseason individual award winners.
In addition to the Spartans being picked to repeat as A-Sun regular season champs, senior outfielder Shellie Robinson has been voted as the Preseason Player of the Year, while sophomore Lexi Shubert has been tabbed as the Preseason Pitcher of the Year. The two are joined on the preseason all-conference team by seniors Cheyenne Griffin and Kendall Settlemyre.
Upstate was a unanimous selection to win the A-Sun regular season title and earned the maximum 64 points and eight first-place votes in the preseason coaches poll. The Spartans are coming off a 2014 campaign that saw it run away with the regular season championship with a 22-2 record. That came one year after the team claimed the 2013 A-Sun Tournament title.
“We have a lot of veterans on the team who have been through battles and achieved a tremendous amount of success over the last few years, including winning two conference championships the last two seasons. So, it is not a surprise that the A-Sun coaches have picked us to win the regular season championship again,” said Upstate head coach Chris Hawkins. “Like I say every year…we are proud of the success that we have achieved, but this year’s team has to put that aside and work hard to get better every day of the season if we want to put ourselves in position to achieve our goals. We have built a solid reputation and received a lot of respect, but that is not going to win us games. The work we put into it will.”
Lipscomb, which joined Upstate and Stetson in the NCAA Tournament last year, was picked to finish second with 55 points and was followed in the coaches poll by 2014 A-Sun Tournament champion Stetson (45), Florida Gulf Coast (43), North Florida (28), Kennesaw State (26), Jacksonville (19) and Northern Kentucky (8). Stetson’s Brittany Hawn and Kennesaw State’s Kara Chambers were selected as the co-Preseason Defensive Player of the Year, joining Robinson and Shubert as preseason award winners.
Upstate is coming off arguably its top season in the history of the program in 2014. The Spartans finished the year with a 46-9 overall record and stormed through the A-Sun to the tune of a 22-2 record en route to its second regular season A-Sun title and third overall (2013 A-Sun Tournament championship) in seven years. Upstate also advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive season, this time as an at-large selection while marking the first time that has occurred in the history of A-Sun softball. The Spartans returned to Tuscaloosa, Ala., for the second straight year to play in the regional hosted by Alabama, last year’s national runner-up.
Hawkins, who is in his 21st year as head coach of the program and who surpassed the 700-win plateau last year, returns a veteran squad in 2015. There are 10 seniors on the team with the potential of seeing as many as eight or nine in the lineup at any given time. That unit helped the 2014 Spartans break the program’s all-time record for wins in a season on the Division I level (one shy of the record 47 in 2007), A-Sun wins, home runs and eight other team records.
One such senior that Hawkins can rely on is Robinson. She was a 2014 NFCA Third Team All-American and the A-Sun Player of the Year. She is also a three-time first team all-conference selection. She led the conference in runs, doubles, total bases and slugging percentage and was second in batting average, home runs and on-base percentage in 2014. She was also third in hits and fifth in RBIs. Her name appears numerous times in Upstate’s career and single-season record books and owns several individual school records, including the school’s career home runs record with 47.
“Shellie is a special player with all of the talents you want in a softball player,” said Hawkins. “She has been a tremendous asset to our program and is coming off a remarkable season last year. She deserves every bit of recognition she receives and I look forward to seeing what she will do in her final season with us.”
Hawkins will also rely on Shubert to carry the load in the circle as the only returning pitcher from last year’s pitching corps that was ranked No. 1 in the nation in ERA late in the season and finished the year among the country’s elite staffs. She was the A-Sun Freshman of the Year and a first team all-conference selection en route to an 18-2 record and 1.53 ERA in 2014. She ranked third in the A-Sun in ERA, second in opponent batting average, and fourth in wins and strikeouts.
“Lexi was not phased playing a key role in our pitching staff as a freshman last year,” said Hawkins. “What she gave us went a long way in the team reaching the level it did. With a year under her belt, I am really excited to see what she will do in leading our pitchers this season.”
Griffin and Settlemyre were first team all-conference selections a year ago in leading Upstate at the corner infield positions. Griffin is a three-time all-conference selection, taking home first team honors in 2012 and 2014. She hit .337 with 32 RBIs and 27 runs last year while maintaining tremendous discipline defensively with a .993 fielding percentage at first base. Settlemyre ranked second on the team and fifth in the A-Sun with a .373 batting average en route to earning her first all-conference nod at third base. She also ranked in the Top 10 in the conference in slugging percentage, home runs, runs, hits and RBIs.
“Cheyenne and Kendall, along with Shellie, represent a core group of seniors who came in as freshmen and set the tone for our program,” said Hawkins. “They have led us where we have gone and the success we have achieved. Chey and Kendall have built strong reputations for being able to deliver day-in and day-out. They play difficult corner infield positions and make it look effortless in doing all of the things we ask them to do. I am happy that they continue to receive the recognition they deserve.”
Upstate will open its season on the road playing Elon and Radford on Feb. 7 in Elon, N.C. The Spartans will host the Upstate Classic and Spartan Invitational tournaments Feb. 13-15 and Feb. 20-22 before hitting the road to play a third tournament early in the season at Winthrop. Upstate will play four A-Sun conference series at home and three on the road this season. Visits by North Carolina and North Carolina State and road games at Georgia, Florida State, Georgia Tech and South Carolina highlight the non-conference portion of the slate.