Coming off a tremendous season in 2014 and returning a veteran squad, the USC Upstate softball team has been ranked No. 25 in the nation by CollegeSportsMadness.com in the website’s Top 44 season preview edition.
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.
Chris 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 led by 2014 NFCA Third Team All-American and A-Sun Player of the Year Shellie Robinson. Robinson’s name appears numerous times in Upstate’s career and single-season record books and owns several individual school records. She is one of 10 seniors on the team, all of whom are expected to play key roles this season.
Hawkins will have the luxury of having seniors start at all four infield positions with 2014 A-Sun First Team All-Conference selections Cheyenne Griffin and Kendall Settlemyre manning the corner positions at first and third, respectively. Dana Landers, a second team all-league pick last year, will move from second base to shortstop in place of the departed Maddison Kieffer, while fellow Kaitlyn Jaeger looks to have nailed down the starting spot at second. Hayley Reinfeld has been in the starting lineup throughout her career and looks to bring that experience to the outfield again this season, potentially placing six seniors in starting positions to begin the season. That number could rise to seven taking into account the designated player spot where senior Aly Schneider found herself on a regular basis in 2014.
Hawkins will also rely on Lexi 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. She will be joined in the circle by freshmen Amanda Storch and Kinsley Jennings, both of who have solid travel and high school pedigrees.
Hawkins will also rely on junior college transfer Paige Matthews to step into the role at catcher after hitting .351 last year at Florida State College. Sophomore Ryan Rector, who was an A-Sun All-Freshman pick last season, is expected to make an even bigger impact this year and seniors Lindsey Greeson, Marche Llanos and Paris Prusak are three other seniors who are looked upon to increase their impact on the team.
In addition to Storch and Jennings, four other freshmen will push for playing time as well, giving Hawkins a good mix of veteran players and an infusion of young talent.
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.