PEMBROKE — This preseason, UNCP softball coach Brittany Bennett has had something happen from her players that she hasn’t seen before in the past while coaching her team in practices or scrimmages.
“The biggest thing I’ve been talking about with them the last two weeks is I’ve been standing in the third-base box in scrimmages and the seniors are coaching me, telling me what they should be doing,” the fifth-year coach said. “When you have kids that you can just show up and watch them do their thing, you know you have set the tone on what our strategy is. You know they are buying in and trying to teach the young ones how to do that too.”
Bennett takes the input that is rubbing off from her coaching style to her players as a positive coming from the five seniors the Lady Braves have returning from a 26-27 season a year ago. The same unit that played a big role as sophomores in 2016 when UNCP made the Peach Belt Conference tournament for the first time since 2011.
Highlighting the senior class is the left side of the infield with returning all-American Jamie Johnson at third base and Taylor Gerhart at shortstop. Johnson hit a team- and conference-best .421 with 14 doubles and 30 RBIs, and on the base paths led the Lady Braves with 33 stolen bases. Gerhart led the team last year with 48 RBIs, and the pair both fielded above .900 last year.
Along with being named third-team all-American a year ago, Johnson was also picked for the preseason Peach Belt Conference team, but Johnson has more goals set for herself this year, according to her coach.
“Her goal is to be a first-team all-American and to be the best third baseman in the country,” Bennett said. “Each one of my seniors is going to contribute to this lineup. They are all very different and they bring a huge amount of innings, experience in the Peach Belt and leadership.”
Seniority goes further than just the left side of the infield with senior outfielders Lexie Coxe and Haleigh Epperson and Toni Nelson behind the plate. All five seniors have either been four-year starters, or saw significant time in games for the Lady Braves over their four-year careers.
“This is the first senior class I have. I want to tell you that you can attribute almost all the success in the fall and the spring to them,” she said. “It is completely in their hands. They know we fell short last season, and I think they are a little more hungry because of that.
“We kind of have a senior in every part of the field. We have one on the corner, in the middle infield, in the outfield and on the pitching and catching staff, so I am thrilled of what kind of infiltration they have to the younger kids.”
This group is the first class to come in as freshmen under Bennett, and now look to take the program back to the postseason after a down year in 2017. After struggling through the final month of the season last year with an injured roster, UNCP is making sure that it keeps a “week-by-week” mindset this season, Bennett said, with the end goal being postseason play.
When the calendar flipped to March last year, the woes for the Lady Braves hit with an 18-game skid that started with the second Peach Belt Conference series against Lander.
Bennett took the streak on her, and this offseason she has used it to her advantage to reaffirm her stance and what she can do to make sure March is not a down month for her team.
“I have a lot of expectations for this team to grow throughout the season. I want us to be more consistent in March because that is where we usually falter,” Bennett said. “Then I would like to take that good energy into April like we did a year and a half ago.”
Helping to aid the Lady Braves is that seven of its top eight hitters from last season are returning from the Peach Belt Conference’s top offense from last season.
That one missing piece is Abbey Walters, who graduated in May and filled several roles for the team as a consistent source of hitting, base-running, pitching and fielding. Bennett knows that filling the void she left as the top home-run hitter from last season and the best arm on the staff when healthy won’t be a one-person task, but instead sees the team as a whole being better, especially on offense.
“We’re going to miss Abbey. She was a huge guarantee in our lineup and you will never replace someone like Abbey Walters. But I think that if last year we had four hitters and Abbey Walters, this year I feel like we’ve got 14 hitters. We have 14 people consistently to drive in the numbers. We have more spread out consistently in the lineup.”
Seven newcomers, including two transfers and five freshmen, enter the program this season, and high hopes for the freshmen class are already being put on by the seniors.
“I think they are going to surprise some people. My seniors come in and tell me all the time how the freshmen remind them a lot of them when they came in,” Bennett said. “I’ve got some good freshmen. Right now I believe they could play any position on the field and you wouldn’t notice other than they are a little quieter.”
Freshmen like Cara Davis and Mary Sells are two rookies that Bennett sees as having an impact with the team, and their speed will be a big factor in the aggressive base-running tactics that the Lady Braves use under Bennett.
Transfer Raygan Larson, coming from Middle Georgia State, will add to the depth in the pitching staff that returns two rising sophomores that split time last year. St. Petersburg transfer Alyssa Price is another highly-regarded newcomer the Lady Braves’ coach sees playing a big role in the infield.
“She’s that quiet kid that shows up every day and next thing you know she’s hit two doubles and stolen three bases and she’s got 14 outs without an error. She’s just a gamer,” Bennett said of Price. “We wanted to add to the depth of the pitching staff so we brought Raygan in, and she comes in from another four-year school out in Georgia. She has 150 innings under her belt, and even though she is new to the Peach Belt, she’s not a freshman because she has all those innings.”
UNCP was tabbed eighth in the preseason coaches poll, after finishing 12th a season ago.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977 or by email at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.