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The Bradsher Beat
Wednesday, February 15, 2012

By Bethany Bradsher

Batting prowess aids softball's 3-1 start

By Bethany Bradsher
All rights reserved.

For baseball and softball teams from the icy North, February is usually the month to migrate to Southern tournaments where the weather is mild.

But last weekend, in the midst of the East Carolina softball team’s season-opening tournament, that scheduling theory hit a snag. Gusty wind and temperatures that hovered in the low ‘20s and felt colder became a recipe for that rarity in the South — a canceled collegiate game.

The Lady Pirates, with input from their opponent Virginia, played four games in the Pirate Classic — going 3-1 — before the final game against the Cavaliers was canceled on Sunday afternoon.

Despite the climatic setback, head coach Tracey Kee viewed the weekend as an encouraging start and a close-angle view of the team’s strengths and struggles.

“When the team from Buffalo says it’s too cold to play, then the rest of us kind of fell on board,” she said.

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Tracey Kee

The most prominent question mark in the preseason revolved around the pitching mound, where Toni Paisley held court until her departure last spring. Paisley broke nearly every ECU pitching record during her career, and Kee has been preparing a trio of freshmen — Courtney Smith, Sarah Christian and Emma Mendoker — to fill her shoes. Mendoker has been limited by an injury, but Smith and Christian each picked up wins and showed the ECU coaches some good things in the Pirate Classic.

Christian finished the weekend 2-0 with victories over Canisius and Drexel, and Smith was 1-1 with a win in the second Canisius game and a loss to Virginia, a strong team with a dominating pitcher in Melanie Mitchell. Even though her team lost to the Cavaliers, Smith gave up only four hits and no strikeouts in the outing and gained larger measures of her coach’s confidence.

“I thought she had a fabulous weekend on her first outings,” Kee said of Smith, who showed her versatility by starting two games and also coming in to relieve Christian in the other two. “I thought she did an unbelievable job against Virginia just scattering the three runs. As a freshman in her first outing, that’s not a bad job.”

Smith, who came to Greenville from Yuba City, CA, was honest about the state of her nerves before she took the mound on Friday — she had butterflies, she said. But with every pitch she became more comfortable with Division I intensity and boosted her trust in the infield behind her.

Without a dominating pitcher like Paisley, ECU’s pitching strategy has shifted from putting teams away with pitching to getting the ball in play and letting the fielders take over.

“Right now, the way the freshman pitching staff is working, we’re just trying to keep the ball on the ground and let our defense work for us,” Smith said. “I know they’re going to make the play behind me when the ball gets on the ground.”

The Lady Pirates have just a few days this week to sharpen fielding skills and tighten offensive strategy, because on Friday they welcome the field for their second consecutive home tournament, the Pirate Clash. With a field featuring Hofstra, Fordham, UNC-Greensboro and UNC-Chapel Hill, the tournament is also expected to feature sunny skies to woo Pirate faithful or even those who just wander over from the baseball team’s season-opening series against Milwaukee.

“With baseball starting, we tend to get a lot of people who come early or stay late, and they kind of wander over and see there’s something pretty neat here," said Kee. "But I think we’re doing a great job of establishing our own fan base as well. I think a lot of people, with our successes, have gotten a little bit hooked on it.”

If the pitching staff is still leaving Pirate fans guessing, the ECU hitters are forming the backbone of the team in these early games, Kee said. The offensive attack has been led by dynamic bats like sophomores Kristi Oshiro and Alex Fieldhouse, who combined for five RBIs and three runs on Friday night against Canisius, and Jasmine Robbins, Abby Wynne and Suzanne Riggs, who all hit home runs on Saturday.

The Lady Pirates have started with a spark at the plate that should arm them well going into this home stand and the string of road trips — lasting nearly a month — that commences after the Pirate Clash.

E-mail Bethany Bradsher

PAGE UPDATED 02/15/12 05:44 AM.

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