Down South’s Conference Carolinas 2017 Preseason Rankings

Heading into an exciting 2017 season there is a lot of uncertainty in Conference Carolinas except for our #1 and #2 teams, Pfeiffer and Limestone.  In the past year these teams have cemented themselves as powerhouses and with Pfeiffers run in regionals they are not only feared in their own conference but in the southeast region as well.  Both teams return their core and look to only be better in 2017.

Following Pfeiffer and Limestone is Erskine and Mount Olive who both look to improve a successful seasons.  North Greenville, King, Barton and Belmont Abbey fill in the middle spots.  While Southern Wesleyan, Lees-McRae, Emmanuel and Converse round out the preseason rankings.

  1. Pfeiffer

pfeiffer_no_backLast Year Finish: 2nd in Regular Season; Conference Tournament Champion; NCAA Regional Appearance finished with 2-2 record falling to Armstrong State in Regional Final 1-0
2016 Record: 39-17 (17-5)
Returning Players with more than 25 Game Appearances: 10
Players on Down South Watch List: 6

In his first season coaching, Monte Sherrill took a young team who struggled a bit in the beginning to a strong finish.  The Falcons reeled off a 14-2 record in April in a time that saw a lot of young players maturing under the new coach.  Pfeiffer was the only team with a winning record against regular season champ Limestone going 3-1 including beating them twice in the conference tournament.  Pfeiffer also avenged a series sweep with Lenoir-Rhyne by beating them twice in the NCAA Regionals.  Pfeiffer fell to eventual World Series participant Armstrong 1-0 in the Regional Final game.  

Pfeiffer will be lead on the offensive side by Vada Blue Sherrill who will look to build off a crazy freshman season and catapult Pfeiffer to the next level.  Pfeiffer will return 5 offensive threats who hit over .300 and will also return offensive players who accounted all except for 29 of their 294 runs.  Defensively the Falcons will lose Sam Jarmusch who had a team high in wins going 11-2 however returning 2 pitches with a sub 2.00 ERA with Callie Kuykendall and Kennedy Lester who led the team hurling 103.0 innings.  Coach Sherrill is also excited about incoming arm Caitlin Christian who came in a threw 5 innings against Tennessee this fall and only allowed 3 runs.

Big Questions:  This team will still be young so the question is are they ready to take the next step.  A very strong Limestone team will be ready to pounce on any slipups on the Falcons season.  If Pfeiffer is able to win the conference tournament the next test will come playing the heavy hitters in the SAC and the PBC.  If Coach Sherrill can have this team firing on all cylinders at the end of April there is a good chance this team will make a lot of noise in the Southeast region.

  1. Limestone

Limestone - StyleGuideLast Year Finish: Regular Season Champions; Runner-up in Conference Championship
2016 Record: 34-16 (17-4)
Returning Players with more than 25 Game Appearances: 9
Players on Down South Watch List: 4

Just because Limestone is put here at second do not think that they are below Pfeiffer this season.  Last season Limestone dominated everyone one in the conference until it came to Pfeiffer.  Don’t think that the regular season champ is happy being second best to Pfeiffer.  Coach Yates will have this team ready to try and reclaim their conference dominance, winning the regular season three years in a row.

Limestone comes with some of the strongest players in the conference returning with junior, Josie Weber and senior, Caroline Hill.  Having presumably the best ace in the circle is always a threat.  If Weber can continue her dominance and fellow bullpen mate Courtney Smith steps up this season this dynamic duo can help Limestone sweep many of the conference series.  Offensively the Saints return 3 players who hit over .340 and played in all 50 games.  Hill with Bailie Maybry and Emma Swearingen will be the core of the lineup.  Limestone has also hit up the junior colleges bringing in 3 players from Hill’s alma mater, Spartanburg Methodist College.  Shortstop, Mary Hart brings a .400 plus batting average with 9 homeruns and pitchers Bailey Pearson and Kaylee Freeman will help take some of the load off Weber and Smith.

Big Questions:  Can they get past Pfeiffer?  Make sure you mark the series down on Sunday, March 19 at Pfeiffer.  This will be a precursor to a possible conference tournament championship and a bid to the NCAA’s on the line.  Limestone’s circle will be dominating but the success goes with the Saints’ bats.  In 2016, eleven of their sixteen losses saw the team scoring two or fewer runs and in only two of their losses did they score more than 4 runs.

  1. Erskine

erskineLast Year Finish: Finished 4th in Regular Season
2016 Record: 27-20 (15-7)
Returning Players with more than 25 Game Appearances: 12
Players on Down South Watch List: 1

Under Coach Hawkins the Erskine team was able to finish 4th, their best finish since 2011 in which they finished second and won the Carolinas Conference tournament.  Finishing only 3 games back from first last season, Erskine returns the most players with 25 game appearances, other than Lees-McRae who has 13.  Erskine returns 14 upperclassman in including 5 seniors to be one of the most experienced programs in the conference.

The Flying Fleet will be led by their 3 seniors in the circle.  Candace Fitch (144 innings pitched), Danica Newton (98.2 innings pitched) and Kaylin White (67.0 innings pitched).  These three arms will determine the success of Erskine this season and the chance to challenge for a top spot in the conference.  Offensively the Flying Fleet returns all their best offensive weapons from last season including 5 players who hit over .300.  Returning players account for 189 of their 202 runs last season and 397 of their 463 total bases.  However, the biggest addition may be in new Assistant Coach, Dave Majeski who comes into complete Hawkins staff.  The former all-SEC outfielder at Florida was the head coach at Presbyterian from 2007-11 and has been connected with local softball for over the last 10 years.   

Big Questions:  This season hinges on the determination of the Flying Fleets upperclassman. This season sets up to be one of the best chances Erskine has had for a while and with solid leadership on and off the field this team can surprise Pfeiffer and Limestone.  I look for the three senior pitchers to post a sub 2.50 team ERA after a 2.99 ERA last season.  I also expect the offense to step it up under the direction of the coaching staff.  Erskine needs to know their time to strike is now and send this senior class out with style.

  1. Mount Olive

trojans-logoLast Year Finish: Finished 3rd in Regular Season
2016 Record: 33-20 (16-6)
Returning Players with more than 25 Game Appearances: 7
Players on Down South Watch List: 1

Mount Olive comes off the second season in a row where they just couldn’t get past Limestone.  A perennial power in the Conference Carolinas the Trojans finished two games out of a Conference regular season championship.  In the tournament Mount Olive had a first round slip up against Belmont Abbey but rallied to reach the semifinal where they lost to Limestone in a 1-0 game.

The primary returners will be senior, Masidon Stewart and juniors, Kayla Allen and Anna Ingram, all who hit above .300 for the Trojans.  Caitlin Ewers will be the only returning arm, as last years freshman pitcher Julie Hodges is not on the 2017 roster.  Ewers will have to carry a bulk of the load after only pitching 55.0 innings in 2016.  The Trojans are freshman heavy this year bringing in 7 new names.  A junior college transfer from Louisbrug, Alexis Hobson comes bringing with her a .444 batting average and 3 homeruns in her last season.

Big Questions:  This team could be in the hunt or could finish a lot lower this season.  There is a lot of unanswered questions as we head into the season.  How big is not having Julie Hodges return after a phenomenal freshman season? How will they replace graduates Kelsey Akers and Savannah Becker who led the team in runs scored and were top 3 in RBI and batting average?  This team will go with new players having chances, if they answer this question I look for a solid finish, if they break under the pressure this could be a .500 team.  Only time will tell for the Trojans.

  1. North Greenville

2064563_mktg_logoLast Year Finish: Finished 5th in Regular Season
2016 Record: 25-24 (11-11)
Returning Players with more than 25 Game Appearances: 9
Players on Down South Watch List: 1

North Greenville has stayed middle of the road since a second place regular season finish in 2014.  Finishing right at .500 in conference games, this defined the Crusaders who were young last season only carrying one senior.  However, at the end of the season the team finished on a 9 game winning streak after previously losing 10 in a row.  Early on in the season North Greenville was able to split with eventual tournament champion Pfeiffer in a pair of 1 run decided games.

Down South player to watch sophomore, Kate Lee, will be the main offensive weapon for the Crusaders this season, as well as serving an anchor for the team in the catcher spot.  Senior, Megan Johnson and junior, Greer Killman also hit above .300 for North Greenville last season.  Last years innings leader in the circle Carson O’Donald is not on the 2017 roster, however they will return 3 players who saw innings including Anna Rodgers who led the team with a 2.45 ERA.

Big Questions:  Who is the ace? North Greenville is in desperate need for a strong arm to jump out and be the staff’s ace.  Coming off a season where they allowed 6 or more runs in 13 loses this team will need to sure up their defense to make a move.  North Greenville will also need consistency to be their best friend this season, and use a 9 game win streak at the end of last years regular season catapult them into a successful 2017.

  1. King

k_logo_version3_tornadoLast Year Finish: Finished 7th in Regular Season
2016 Record: 19-31 (10-12)
Returning Players with more than 25 Game Appearances: 7
Players on Down South Watch List: 1

In 2016 the Torandos of King University could just not figure out who they were.  Splitting with Limestone and Pfeiffer in the season showed the strength of King, then splitting with Southern Wesleyan and Emmanuel showed they were not quite ready to compete.  A sweep by North Greenville at the end of the season put them in the seven spot of the tournament where they lost to eventual champion Pfeiffer.  

King will need to use there three power seniors to help have a successful season.  University of Tennessee transfer Hannah Devotie will be the primary weapon coming off a .347 season where she scored 31 runs.  Jennifer Kern and Olivia Lawson round out the seniors who return hitting over .300 last season.  They will need to work together to replace graduate Hannah Smith who hit .405 with 9 homeruns and scoring 46 RBI.  On the mound they return Hayley Smotheres who threw 181.0 innings for the Tornados, however she will need to lower her 3.13 ERA for this team to have a chance.

Big Questions:  This team will be new this season bringing in 5 junior college transfers so success can hinge on the new changes to the team.  King will also have to sure up their battery, having a team ERA of 3.85 will keep this team from being successful.  King has the talent to challenge the top of this conference, however it will all start with Smothers who will need to have a big year to keep King in contention.  

  1. Barton

barton2xLast Year Finish: Finished 8th in Regular Season
2016 Record: 21-26 (9-13)
Returning Players with more than 25 Game Appearances: 6
Players on Down South Watch List: 1

Barton softball has not seen a winning season in the Conference Carolinas since as far as we can track back in 2007.  Therefore a change was made with the hiring of former Pitt Community College head coach Junior Bailey.  Bailey comes to Barton with over 300 wins and a .683 winning percentage and 3 trips to the National Tournament in DI competition.  Barton struggled again last season, however in the tournament showed some fight only losing to #2 Limestone and #3 Mount Olive by 1 run.

The Bulldogs return 3 of their 4 players who hit over .300 including Sophomore, Hannah Jones who will be an integral part of the success at the plate and in the circle.  Jones had the most at bats and was second to graduate Liz White for innings pitched.  Coach Bailey is bringing in 4 freshman 3 of which are listed as pitchers as well as a transfer from his old school Pitt Community College who is also listed as a pitcher.

Big Questions:  Could this be the first winning season in conference play?  We think Barton is a year or two out, however they will continue an upward trend.  With a change in regime, a coach who is used to winning will hopefully pass this attitude on to the players.  We will be watching which pitchers on this roster become a big part of the future success with 5 of the 6 pitchers being underclassman.

  1. Belmont Abbey

41746Last Year Finish: Finished 6th in Regular Season
2016 Record: 20-29 (11-11)
Returning Players with more than 25 Game Appearances: 9
Players on Down South Watch List: 0

Finishing at .500 in conference we could never really get a good feeling about Belmont Abbey.  Against the teams finishing in the top 5 the Abbey softball was 2-8 in the regular season.  The Crusaders did get a win in the first round of the conference tournament against Mount Olive but then lost to #2 Pfeiffer and #7 King in the next two games to eliminate the team.

Belmont Abbey heads into 2017 with the largest roster in the conference listing 35 players.  Of the 4 players hitting over .300 the Crusaders only return sophomore, Selena Thompson who hit .326.  Senior Mackenzie Dziendziel will be the returning power leading the returners with 3 homeruns and 17 RBI.  In the circle Abbey returns 4 pitchers, who when combined only saw action in 107.1 innings while losing 2 pitchers who each pitched over 100 innings.

Big Questions:  What team will we see take the field?  With such a large roster and a lot of change we are unsure of who Belmont Abbey really is.  This team has talent in some skilled positions but lacking a consistent pitcher as well as a powerful bat in the lineup.  This will make it hard to match up against the teams we have seeded above them.  With 12 freshmen and 8 sophomores listed on the roster, it will be interesting to see if there are any game changers who step up this season.

  1. Southern Wesleyan

18797618192x192r3Last Year Finish: Finished 10th in Regular Season, did not make Conference Tournament. Participated in the NCCAA World Series losing in the Semifinals.
2016 Record: 23-31 (8-14)
Returning Players with more than 25 Game Appearances: 10
Players on Down South Watch List: 1

Southern Wesleyan had some good wins in 2016 including a split with Mount Olive and Pfeiffer in the regular season.  Southern Wesleyan also had a win against Peach Belt’s Georgia Southwestern and a 2 game sweep over Francis Marion.  The Warriors participated in the NCCAA (National Christian College Athletic Association) World Series making it to the Semifinals before losing out.

Down South player to watch Lizzie Fela will be leading the offense for Southern Wesleyan as well a fellow seniors Sara Sweatt and Kelly Cooper.  Both Fela and Sweatt logged batting averages over .400 while Fela led with 48 RBI and Sweatt with 55 runs scored.  In the circle the Warriors return two juniors who each pitched over 100 innings.  Hunter Hoskins who led the team with 150.1 innings pitched also posted a 3.68 ERA and was 13-10 on the season.

Big Questions:  Southern Wesleyan will be Senior led team this season listing 7 on their roster, however they also have 7 freshman coming in.  After posting a winning record in their first year of conference action, 2015, they fell off last season.  Can this team reclaim their winning ways in 2017?  The offense will help them in this search, but pitching can be the stumbling block to consistent success.

  1. Lees-McRae

lees-mcrae_pawLast Year Finish: Finished 11th in Regular Season, did not make Conference Tournament
Last Year Record: 10-36 (6-16)
Returning Players with more than 25 Game Appearances: 13
Players on Down South Watch List: 0

2016 was not the best season for Lee-McRae who struggled in the season including a stretch where they lost 11 games in a row.  The Bobcats did have some good wins on the season including a 2 game series sweep over 4th place finishing Erskine.  However, the team also had some bad losses including a split with Converse to give Converse their only conference win of the season.  

The Bobcats do return the most players in the conference who participated in at least 25 games, so game experience will not be the issue.  Senior, Charlie Dutton and junior, Sarah Tucker return as the only hitters to hit above .300 last season.  Tucker also returns as the homerun (4) and RBI (18) team leader.  Lees-McRae also returns all the pitchers who saw action last season but will need to improve after pitching a team ERA of 4.24.  

Big Questions:  Do the players make the improvements to go to the next level?  Returning the most players with experience can be good, however if these players have not made the improvements we could be looking at the same results.  Only having 5 freshman on the roster there is not a lot of change to this roster.  Lees-McRae will need to secure some pitching after posting a 4.24 ERA compared to their opponents who pitched 1.79 against them.  Their offense will also need to come alive being outscored 225 to 104 last season for an anemic 2.3 runs per game average.

  1. Emmanuel

emmanuelgalions_logoLast Year Finish: Finished 7th but did not make postseason, participated in NCCAA softball Championships.
Last Year Record: 30-24 (10-11)
Returning Players with more than 25 Game Appearances: 3
Players on Down South Watch List: 1

After going 2-13 in conference in 2015, Emmanuel came back with a 10-11 record in 2016 which would have had them 7th and making the conference tournament if they were eligible for postseason play.  Emmanuel participated in the NCCAA softball championships winning the South Region, however they fell to familiar foe Southern Wesleyan in the first round of the World Series in an extra inning game.

The team only returns 3 players with 25 games of experience or more, however they are happy to have 1 of the 3 returning players be junior pitcher, Erin Harden.  Harden threw a team high 195.0 innings with 262 strikeouts and a 2.23 ERA.  Offensively, sophomore Halle Cheek is the most potent option hitting .292 with 25 RBI.  On the Lions 20 man roster they are only returning 9 players from last years roster.

Big Questions:  How far can they ride Harden’s back?  Pitcher, Erin Harden, will be the centerpiece of success at Emmanuel this season.  Having to basically put a brand new team on the field they will look for the leadership of Harden to get them through this season.  If Harden can have another great season carrying the load and the new offense can generate some runs this team may be as competitive as any, but right now there is too many “if’s” for us.

  1. Converse

valkyries-add-twelfth-sport-acrobatics-and-tumblingLast Year Finish: Finished 12th in Regular Season, did not make Conference Tournament
2016 Record: 7-33 (1-21)
Returning Players with more than 25 Game Appearances: 9
Players on Down South Watch List: 0

In their very first season of collegiate softball the Converse softball team went through a lot of bumps and bruises, however they did win their very first conference game beating Lees-McRae 5-3 to start off the conference season, however after that they struggled losing 21 straight in conference play.

Converse will return a good core group who now have collegiate softball action under their belt.  Shelby Bullock will be the highest returning batting average hitting .274 last season.  Sophomore, Marissa Steadman returns after leading the team in pitching 190.1 innings.

Big Questions:  What does year two look like?  There are a lot of concerns that need to be addressed but it looks as though this team will need to be patient and slowly increase the talent over the next couple of years.  The team had a conference low 1.85 runs per game while posting a team ERA of 5.83 in comparison to their opponents who pitched 1.52 against them.  For the second year in a row this team will be underclassman heavy with a roster listing 9 freshman, 7 sophomores, 3 juniors, and 1 senior.  

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