Feb. 6, 2013
COLUMBIA, S.C. - The final part of our preview series brings us to the middle of the diamond, the circle. Now the focus turns to the person every fan looks to at the start - the pitcher. Head coach Beverly Smith spends most of her time working with this position, knowing pitching is the key to the success of the team.
Every staff has an ace, and Smith brings back her best pitcher from her first two seasons, redshirt senior Audrey Broyles. The Pembroke Pines, Fla., product already has her name written in the top 15 in South Carolina history in many pitching categories, and she will move up many of those lists this spring. This will be her third season after major shoulder surgery shortened her true sophomore campaign, and she looks to continue showing the form she had when she ended the 2010 season with a 0.99 ERA. Broyles not only will be counted on in big games, but she'll also be looked to provide some help to the younger members of the group, which includes three sophomores and a true freshman.
"Audrey has a great presence about her and great experience," said Smith, "and she has been the person we have gone to in all the big games. I am excited that she is returning this year and that our relatively young staff really gets to learn from her."
Two sophomores return to the squad, including last year's innings leader Katelynn Howser. With that experience, Smith said Howser has shown growth in her work ethic and skill set coming into the year. "She really worked hard over the summer and has made some big improvements," commented Smith. "From what she gained last year and the work we have put in, we have really seen some improvements."
The other returning sophomore missed all of 2012 after elbow ligament replacement surgery, more commonly known as Tommy John surgery, but Julie Sarratt has used that time wisely to hone her game in other areas. Last year, she spent much time sitting with Smith in the dugout, developing the mental side of her game even more. With her potent bat and defensive skills at first, Sarratt is quite busy during practice, working in all areas of the game. Smith said, "Julie got a lot of time as a freshman, but that was two years ago. So her getting into the circle and facing hitters has been really important (during our practices). I see improvement in Julie during every practice. She has been doing a super job in the circle."
Another experienced player joins the team in sophomore Lakyn Shull. A transfer from Furman, Shull led the Paladins in innings pitched, complete games, wins, saves and strikeouts. About Shull, Smith remarked, "Lakyn is a strong girl, and I am excited about her upside. She comes with a good bit of experience from her freshman year at Furman. We are continuing to work on some things, but she could be someone who makes big strides."
The final piece of the staff is freshman Katie Marks. A second-team ESPNHS All-American at Katy (Texas) High School and with the Texas Impact Gold travel ball team, Marks has a lot of experience against some of the best youth players in America. Last summer, Marks led her team through the losers bracket to the ASA Nationals 18U Gold Championship Game, including forcing the if-necessary game. That experience could prove to be big as Marks heads into the toughest conference in the country. Smith expects to see Marks in the circle a lot for the Gamecocks this season and in the coming years.
Much like in Smith's first year, the five pitchers will all be used in different situations. "As a staff, they all complement each other. It's very effective when we can choose our starting pitcher based on a particular game plan or weakness that our opponent has. And because it is hard to get some of these hitters out three and four times in a game, when we need to make changes, because all of them are very different, we will be able to change our look."
With practices winding down, Smith has been able to nail down some starting assignments and jobs. The four returning starters, seniors Samie Garcia and Shelby Gonzales along with juniors Dana Hathorn and Chelsea Hawkins, all have kept their jobs at shortstop, catcher, second base and right field, respectively. Smith expects freshman Alaynie Page to start in left, while center field is still a battle between sophomore Kristen Struett and junior Ashlyn Masters.
On the infield corners, Sarratt may start at first when she's not pitching, and redshirt senior Kelley Dillon leads the pack to start when Sarratt's in the circle. Dillon can shift to third when Sarratt's anchors the right side of the infield, while junior Codee Yeske has proven she can handle third in practice.
Yeske and Masters both have been strong with the bat in the spring practices and should find their way into the lineup as the designated player if they don't start in the field. Smith loves the versatility of her team this year, giving her the option to mix and match against certain teams and pitchers that the Gamecocks will see this spring.
Smith is brimming with confidence in her third team at South Carolina. "This will be an exciting team to watch," Smith said. "I have really enjoyed watching this team develop through the fall. They have come with a different mindset and a great work ethic. To me, the difference in this group will be the mentality and the desire to achieve this season. I think this is going to be a special year for the Gamecocks."
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