Softball ready to commence 2016 title defense

Closing out the 2016 season with a historic run to a national championship, the North Alabama softball team looks to keep the momentum rolling in 2017.

The Lions will have several fresh faces in the lineup this season with just 12 players returning this year from last year’s team of 24.

“I’m really excited about this team and the new adventure we will have,” said head coach Ashley Cozart. “We are going to be a different kind of team this year. I think the power will still be there, but we will have different ways of scoring with the speed this team has.”

Some of the key losses include infielder Harlie Barkley, outfielder Courtney Shields and infielder Madeline Lee, all of whom started at least 54 games.

The Lions will also have to replace NCAA Division II Conference Commissioners Association (D2CCA) Player of the Year Brooklyn Clark.

Clark led the team in a majority of batting statistics, including runs-batted in with 84 and home runs with 19.

The team will still have Clark in some capacity. She is serving as a student coach this season while continuing toward her degree.

“It was hard at first (to transition from player to coach),” she said. “It hit especially hard at the first practice because it sank in that my career was actually over. But, I am blessed enough to get to stay on and help.”

UNA does have the luxury of having two D2CCA All-Americans returning — senior first baseman Anna Gayle Norris and junior shortstop Reagan Tittle.

Norris is the statistically best returning hitter from last season. She was third on the team in batting average, hitting .376, and second to Clark in home runs with 15.

Also among the returnees is junior outfielder Bailey Nelson. Nelson had 79 hits and 25 RBI’s as the Lion’s leadoff batter last year.

Nelson said the team has stayed focused throughout the offseason and is keeping its eyes on this year’s prize.

“We aren’t settling for last year because that is in the past,” she said. “We are still hungry for another national championship. We worked really hard in the fall, and we have been working hard since Christmas break. We know that’s what it takes to get there, and we don’t want to settle for anything less.”

Despite half of the 2016 team departing, UNA will have a strength in its pitching corps as Hillary Carpenter, Raven Cole and Hannah Bodenhorn return.

Carpenter finished 2016 with a 33-3 record, including 2-0 in the final two games of the Division II College World Series and was named the tournament’s most outstanding player.

Cole won 25 games in 28 starts and finished with a 2.24 ERA while Bodenhorn had a 3.12 ERA in 40.1 innings pitched.

The Lions begin their title defense at the Gulf Coast Invitational Feb. 3-5 at Gulf Shores, Alabama where they will face teams such as Barry, Spring Hill and Missouri-St. Louis.

UNA will then play in the Montevallo Falcon Frenzy tournament Feb. 10-12 at Montevallo, Alabama.

The first home game of the season is a double header versus Southern Indiana Feb. 14. The Lions begin Gulf South Conference play later that week for a three game series at West Georgia.