The Georgia Southern University softball team will play its opening game of the 2016 season tonight at 6:30 P.M. against Mississippi State in the Bulldog Kickoff Classic.
The Eagles are returning to the diamond after a 2015 campaign where they finished 12-39 overall and 4-20 in the Sun Belt. They are returning five of their top six offensive players and a pair of sophomore pitchers who made a combined 56 appearances as freshmen last season. Fifth-year head coach Annie Smith is excited about starting the season after a strong fall and good spring practice.
“We’ve had a very good fall, a good offseason,” Smith said. “The team has worked very hard. Made a lot of records in the weight room and they came back (from the break) in shape, so we were able to continue to work hard in the practice time we’ve had.”
This year’s team has just one lone senior in catcher A.J. Hamilton. Hamilton started 51 games last season and tied the team-high in home runs with six. Her experience behind the plate could be crucial for the Eagles this season. She will once again be catching a lot for Kierra Camp and Heather Felt. Camp threw 127 innings and Felt tossed 86 innings as freshmen last season. Coach Smith said that experience will help the young pitchers in 2016.
“It’s immensely important,” Smith said. “We’re gonna give them the ball and they have to get out there and go after it.”
Another important player will be junior outfielder Taylor Rodgers. Rodgers was recently named to the Sun Belt Preseason All-Conference team after going .345 at the plate and collecting 49 hits in just 39 appearances last season, both of which were team-highs. She will likely hit at the top of the lineup for the Eagles and should get on base often for her teammates behind her.
GSU will compete in five non-conference tournaments in the first half of the schedule. They will also travel to Athens to take on the University of Georgia in the annual contest between the two schools.
In addition to the tough non-conference schedule, the Eagles will once again have to navigate a tough in-conference schedule, something Coach Smith is excited about.
“It’s a tough league. We’re in a 5 RPI league. The SoCon was a 14 RPI league. ULL is gonna be solid. They’ll probably end up in the top 10. South Alabama is solid. Everyone really is solid. There is no weekend off, and that’s exciting. That’s why we play this game,” Smith said.
These non-conference tournaments are a time for Coach Smith and the rest of the staff to evaluate the team and tinker with some of the lineups and looks. It also can be an indicator of what kind of team they’ll have heading into conference play.
“You wanna see how we work together, what are the best lineups going to be, how does everybody fit in, what are their roles gonna be,” Smith said. “You’re doing a lot of different things trying to nail those things down.”
The Eagles will play five games in the Bulldog Kickoff Classic beginning tonight. They’ll take on Tennessee Tech, Alabama A&M and Houston after the opening game against Mississippi State. First pitch is at 6:30 P.M.