HANCEVILLE, ALA. – Wallace State softball coach Jayne Clem and the Lady Lions are itching to get the 2015 season underway and ultimately return to the program's expected postseason success.
"Our team is hungry. We're excited to get started and see where this ride takes us. We look good at practice, but that's practice," Clem said. "I truly believe we should be back to our regular team if not better this season. I think we have more overall talent than we've ever had. If we have the season I think we can, we'll be a legitimate contender again in the end."
Wallace State opens the season Friday in the Clearwater (Fla.) JUCO Kickoff Classic and Showcase. The Lady Lions will play eight games over the weekend, including opening on Friday against St. Petersburg College, State College of Florida-Manatee and Florida State College at Jacksonville. Wallace State has 33 games scheduled over the season's first four weeks as it continues the tradition of playing in highly-competitive February tournaments. They'll travel to Florida, Atmore, Gulf Shores and San Jacinto, Texas, before February closes.
Wallace State is less than two years removed from winning the 2013 National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Division I national title. The Lady Lions, also national champs in 2008, were unable to successfully defend their national title last season, but still finished with a 44-28 record and earned their ninth consecutive Alabama Community College Conference (ACCC) North Division title.
Wallace State lost in the conference tournament semifinals, missing out on an ACCC/Region 22 championship and a national tournament appearance for only the third time since 2003.
"Our offense was good last year, but we just made too many errors. We couldn't play defense when it mattered the most. I'm sure we led the nation in errors," said Clem, who is entering her 16th season at Wallace State. "I think that's going to make our sophomores more determined this season. This sophomore class started out with 15 or 16 people and it's down to around eight. It says a lot about the ones who have stuck through it. They don't want to be the first class in a long time to leave here without a conference championship. They're ready to prove a point."
Wallace State returns a pair of sophomore pitchers this season.
Rachel Ragland, a Pleasant Grove native, is among the NJCAA Region 22 preseason top returners after finishing her freshman season with a 21-8 record, four saves and 2.92 ERA.
Amanda Medders, a first-team ACCC/Region 22 member as a freshman, also returns to the mound for Wallace State after compiling a 17-12 record and 2.51 ERA in 30 games. She made 25 starts and tossed 16 complete games.
"Rachel Ragland has really matured since last season. Rachel should be a totally different pitcher and someone who can step up and shut a team down. Amanda Medders has worked really hard after offseason shoulder surgery and knows what it takes to be successful," Clem said. "These two pitched great last season. Their numbers could have been even better if we played good defense. If Rachel or Amanda were struggling in a game, they put too much pressure on themselves and felt they had to be perfect. I don't think that will be the case this season."
Wallace State's pitching staff should be deeper this season with the addition of freshman Katie Parr, a Class 5A All-State player and state champion at Hayden High School.
Newcomers Leisha Yamauchi, a Hawaiian, and Shelby Brown, a Hueytown native, will also collect innings on the mound.
Sophomore second baseman Makenzie Hill is the lone returner in the Wallace State infield and among the top Region 22 returners this season as announced by the NJCAA. Hill, a Lawrence County grad, hit .343 last season with eight homers and 37 RBIs.
Andrea McKenzie, a 2nd-team All-ACCC North Division selection, also returns to the lineup after hitting .369 with eight homers and a team-high 69 RBIs last season.
McKenzie, a Florida native, is shifting to left field this season after serving primarily as the starting catcher in 2014.
Sophomore Kaitlyn Whitehead, a Holly Pond grad, will slide in as Wallace State's catcher after a strong fall season. She has already committed to play next season at Blue Mountain College in Mississippi along with Wallace State teammate Brooke Kinsey.
Freshman Molli Garcia will be Wallace State's starting third baseman, Abbie Ellison is slated for shortstop and Parr for first. Ellison, who originally signed with Troy University out of Leeds, is among the top NJCAA Region 22 transfers this season.
"Those three freshmen will determine a big part of what we do," Clem said.
Sarah Ellen Battles, a Hartselle native who was also a key member of Wallace State's six-time defending conference champion volleyball team, will be the Lady Lions' starting center fielder on opening day, and Olivia Royals and Sarah Jordan should split time in right field.
Clem is excited about the depth of the squad and believes players like Kinsey, Julia Daley and Sam Riley can each fill in as the designated player and average around 10 to 15 homers apiece.
"This is probably one of the deepest teams we've had. We're probably 20 players deep across the board. It will be interesting to see who meshes with who over the first few weeks. If everyone accepts their role, we can be very dangerous," Clem said.
Morgan Cantrell (Mortimer Jordan HS), Kayla Byrd (Hayden), Ashley Smith (Susan Moore), Courtney Walker (West Point), Megan Quimby (Gordo), Jennifer Gonzalez (Rogers, Ark.) and Erin Benson (Oak Grove) make up the remainder of Wallace State's roster.
Clem has established Wallace State softball as a perennial state and national contender. She enters the season with a 761-203 career record (.789 winning percentage) with Wallace State and has led the Lady Lions to eight conference championships and two national titles.
The ACCC has switched from three to two divisions this season, resulting in Central Alabama and Southern Union joining the Lady Lions in the North Division. Calhoun, Gadsden State, Lawson State, Marion Military Institute, Snead State and Shelton State also make up the division.
Wallace State's conference opener is March 14 at Gadsden State. The home conference opener is March 17 vs. Calhoun.
Clem believes Wallace State has one of the toughest schedules in the country.
"I don't think anyone can play the schedule we do and expect to go undefeated. If we measured RPI, we would have to be near the top," Clem said. "It's not about being undefeated though. It's about being there in the end."
Jeff Benson returns to Wallace State for a second season as assistant coach.