HANCEVILLE, ALA. – Wallace State softball, the defending NJCAA Division I national champion, has never entered a season as the top-ranked team in the nation until now.
As exhilarating as that is for coach Jayne Clem and the Lady Lions, they're focused on getting better with each game. After all, it's much more important to be the only team left standing in May compared to the top-ranked team in February.
"It is neat for us to be the No. 1 team in the nation. Our players are excited. It should be a sign of respect for our program because we didn't feel we had much last year, not until we won it all," said Clem who's entering her 15th season at Wallace State with 717 career wins, eight state championships and two national titles. "We're going to embrace the top ranking and know we're going to get everyone's best game like we always do. We may go out and finish 0-6 this weekend, but if we get better each day, that's what I'm concerned about. It matters where we finish in the end."
Wallace State softball captured its second national championship last season, adding to the first title won in 2008. The program also finished NJCAA national runner-up in 2009 and 2010 and third in 2012.
Wallace State opens the 2014 season Friday in Atmore, hosting the Creek Indian JUCO Classic. The Lady Lions will play six games during the two-day tournament, which was moved to Atmore this season because of more favorable weather conditions.
The JUCO Classic begins a two-month span of competitive tournaments the Lady Lions are annually invited to play in because of the program's national prominence. They'll play in the San Jacinto (Texas) College tournament from Feb. 14-16; the Gulf Coast tournament in Panama City, Fla., on Feb. 21-23; the NFCA Lead-off Classic Invitational in Columbus, Ga., on Feb. 28-March 2; the Southern Union tournament in Auburn on March 14-15 and the ACCC Cross Over tournament in Montgomery on March 21-22.
It's a safe bet the defending champs will be battled tested by the end of the tournament gauntlet and before they play their first home game on April 8.
Wallace State's chances to repeat this season will be determined by returning slugger Kori Benson, sophomore infielder Madeline Lee and an intriguing freshman class.
Benson put together one of the best individual seasons for a Wallace State softball player last season. She hit a single-season school-record 23 homers and added a .352 average and 69 RBIs. Benson, an Oak Grove grad, also racked up the postseason awards, earning the 2013 NJCAA national tournament defensive MVP, a NFCA All-American nod and the ACCC/Region 22 state tournament MVP trophy.
Lee was just as vital to Wallace State's success. The Lady Lions' second baseman hit .385 with nine homers, 37 RBIs, 15 doubles, 19 steals and a .428 on base percentage. She was an all-tournament selection at the national tournament in St. George, Utah.
Additionally, Benson and Lee each had strong postseasons, contributing to the Lady Lions scoring 33 runs in five national tournament victories.
Benson is shifting to her natural spot at catcher this season instead of playing third base, and Lee may split time at both second and shortstop. Both of their bats will be key pieces.
"We expected those seasons from both Kori and Madeline last year. That's what they both did in high school. They battled against each other on opposite teams in high school and are competitive against each other on our team," Clem said. "We knew they were both capable of great seasons. It was just a matter of them having confidence in themselves."
Sophomores Sabrina Russell, Ashleigh McClure, Kelsey King and Annie Holcomb also return to the fray this season. Clem said Russell, a Fairview grad, has earned a starting spot at first base, and McClure will see a lot of action at third base. Holcomb should also see time in a variety of roles after collecting 14 RBIs in 51 at bats last season.
Kelsey King is the lone returning pitcher. The Oneonta grad went 2-1 with a 2.83 ERA in 12 appearances in 2013.
King and a slew of freshman pitchers will be called upon to pick up the slack from last season's departed duo of BreAnna Blevins and Lindsey DeFee, each who won 26 games. DeFee was the NJCAA national tournament MVP and Most Outstanding Player.
Clem believes freshman hurlers Rachel Ragland, Amanda Medders, Misty Doran and Paige Browning will each provide quality innings for the Lady Lions.
"Kelsey King gives us a little experience. She even pitched a couple of innings in Utah last year," Clem said. "I'm ready to see what our freshman pitchers are going to do. They are really working hard and seem to be getting to where they need to be."
Andrea McKenzie, a freshman from Lynn Haven, Fla., has grabbed one of the starting outfield nods after hitting .389 as a high school senior and finishing with a .368 average, 11 homers and 47 RBIs as a junior.
"Andrea has solidified her starting spot more than anyone. She has stepped up big time. She definitely has the strongest outfield arm on the team," Clem said.
Hannah Harper, a Hatton grad, and Isabella Campbell, a Grissom product, should split time in center field, while Carly Sapp sees time in left.
Mackenzie Hill, a Lawrence County grad, is still not completely recovered from a knee injury she suffered the beginning of fall practice, but she will provide a big lift in the Wallace State infield after hitting .417 last season with 14 homers, 12 triples and 47 doubles as a high school senior. She also added 25 stolen bases and had a .987 fielding percentage.
Assistant coach Jeff Benson and volunteer pitching coach Laurin Watts, a member of the 2011 Lady Lions, join Wallace State's coaching staff this season.
For more information about Wallace State athletics, visit wallacestate.edu.
Pictured is Madeline Lee