Softball team swings into new season

Senior second baseman Madeline Lee rounds second against West Alabama last season. The Lions return six starters and start the season Jan. 29 against defending national champions North Georgia.

There appears to be nothing but optimism and high expectations surrounding this year’s softball team.

After finishing 38-14 (17-9 Gulf South Conference) and falling short to Florida Tech in the South Region final, the Lions are on a mission.

This year’s lineup features a senior-heavy lineup, as 13 lettermen and six starters return to the team, including the entire infield. Head coach Ashley Cozart said she is confident in the 2016 team.

“I think a lot of our returners are really hungry,” Cozart said. “We got to the championship game in the conference tournament last year, and we got to the championship game in the regional. We know what it takes to get there now, so hopefully we have that hungriness and will to get past that.”

The GSC coaches picked UNA fourth in the preseason poll, despite the Lions’ favorable odds. Ahead of the Lions are the defending regular season champions, Valdosta State, Alabama-Huntsville and conference tournament winner Shorter.

Cozart said she does not put much merit into the preseason rankings.

“It’s nice to know if you’re up there, but it gives us something to shoot for,” Cozart said. “I think some of our girls were a little disappointed, but I think that just motivates us more.”

Junior pitcher Hillary Carpenter is the lone representative for the Lions on the All-GSC preseason team. Along with Carpenter, the Lions return starters Madeline Lee, Brooklyn Clark, Harlie Barkley, Courtney Shields, Bailey Nelson and Reagan Tittle.

While UNA bolsters solid returners, Lee, the team’s senior second baseman, said she is expecting immediate impact from newcomers.

“I am very excited to see what we can do this year,” Lee said. “We have a lot of talent coming in, both underclassmen and transfers from (junior colleges). Everybody is here to work hard and wants to win.”

Cozart said the incoming talent can compete for starting roles instantly.

“The girls that have come in have really bought in to what the coaches are saying and what the returners are saying,” she said. “We brought in a pitcher named Raven Cole, who was very successful at her last school and has the ability to take over a game. We have a few freshmen that are working their way into the lineup as well.”

While many teams find holes in their team, Cozart said this year’s squad seems to be more solid all-around than previous teams she has coached.

“We’re very balanced everywhere,” Cozart said. “We’re hitting the ball very well at every practice. Defensively, we’re coming together, communicating and making the right plays. Our pitching staff is going to do well again in the circle.”

The Lions will have a tough matchup to begin 2016, as their first game is against the defending national champions, North Georgia. The game is part of the GSC/Peach Belt Conference crossover in Columbus, Georgia, Jan. 29-31.

Clark, a senior first baseman, said she thinks the first game will be a welcomed test for the Lions.

“Most teams may be scared to play the defending national champion, but we’re pretty excited about playing them right off the bat,” Clark said. “We have a good all-around team, and it will be a good game. Playing them first will get our momentum going for the rest of the season.”