HANCEVILLE, Ala. – Wallace State's softball team opens the 2016 season on Friday, ranked 12th in the country and with their sights ultimately set on earning their 10th Alabama Community College Conference (ACCC) title and contending nationally.
The Lady Lions, who return 11 sophomores this season, finished with a 62-14 record in 2015, climbing out of the elimination bracket to win the program's ninth ACCC championship and earning a school-best No. 2 seed at the NJCAA Division I national championship.
"I'm ready to play and see what unfolds this season. Last year our team fought all season long, and the main emphasis was our sophomores didn't want to be the first class in a long time not to advance to nationals," said Wallace State coach Jayne Clem, who's entering her 17th season with the Lady Lions. "This new group has done everything we have asked of them in the offseason. They've worked very hard. We changed the routine up this offseason and the players seemed to enjoy it and responded to it well. I'm excited to see what our team can do. I think we'll be fun to watch."
While Wallace State has 56 combined wins to replace on the mound between departed 2015 co-aces Rachel Ragland and Amanda Medders, the Lady Lions should rely on their sophomore experience in the lineup to create an early identity.
Sophomore third baseman Katie Parr returns to the hot corner after leading the club with 11 homers and 55 RBIs last season. Parr, a Hayden graduate, was named a first-team All-ACCC North Division member after hitting .389 and also led the team in slugging percentage (.686) and on base percentage (.520).
Molli Garcia, a California native, is back behind the dish after hitting .296 with seven homers and 29 RBIs and impressively directing the pitching staff as a freshman.
Parr, Garcia, Olivia Royal and Shelby Brown were each selected this week as NJCAA Region 22 preseason top returning players.
Royal, an outfielder from Eclectic, was a spark for Wallace State last season, finishing with a team-high 38 stolen bases. She hit at a .380 clip and scored 58 runs.
Brown, a sophomore from Hueytown, is expected to fulfill a big role on the mound after Medders and Ragland combined to pitch 441 1/3 innings last season.
Freshman Brittany Ledbetter, a 1st-team ASWA All-State selection out of Tuscaloosa Academy, has a chance to shine on the mound as well after a strong fall season. She was voted this week among the top NJCAA Region 22 top newcomers of the year.
"Brittany Ledbetter nearly beat Mississippi State and UAH in the fall, and I think she knows what it takes to succeed. As with any freshman, the key is to have her gain experience and more confidence as the season progresses. Brittany had to strike out a lot of hitters in high school, but I think our defense is going to be much improved and she can let them support her," Clem said. "We also have confidence in Jesse Butler helping us on the mound. She has wicked movement on some of her pitches."
Butler is an honorable mention All-State selection from Lexington High.
Sophomore Leisha Yamauchi is also another option on the mound for the Lady Lions. Yamauchi is from Honolulu, Hawaii.
Offensively, Yamauchi and Julia Dailey, a Huntsville High grad, should provide stability at the designated hitter spot along with freshman Kaylee Davis from Buckhorn High.
Brown will start at first base for Wallace State when she's not on the mound, while sophomore Sarah Ellen Battles, a Hartselle grad, is moving to second base this season. She started in right field as a freshman.
Freshmen Taylor Beshears and Amber Hammonds, both from Hewitt-Trussville, are also among the top NJCAA Region 22 top newcomers of the year.
Beshears is penciled in as Wallace State's starting shortstop after earning 1st-team All-State recognition as a senior at Class 7A Hewitt-Trussville. Clem said Hammonds, who is expected to start in center field, probably has more range than any outfielder she has ever coached at Wallace State.
Royal moves from center to left field this season and Jennifer Gonzalez, an Arkansas native, and Lindsey Reeves, who hails from Missouri, should each split time in right.
"We've probably got more speed on this team than I can ever remember. Our outfield will be able to cover some serious ground. Overall, I feel like we've improved on defense more than anything," said Clem, who has a career record of 823-217 at Wallace State.
Kayla Byrd (Hayden), Megan Quimby (Gordo), Ashley Smith (Susan Moore) and Erin Benson (Oak Grove) round out the sophomore class.
Clem, who has led the program to a pair of NJCAA Division I national titles, schedules a tough February slate each season.
Wallace State is among 33 teams participating this weekend in the 7th annual JUCO Kickoff Classic in Clearwater, Fla., and the Lady Lions are scheduled to play seven games over three days, including against Northwest Florida State College, Pasco-Hernandez State College and Indian River State College on Friday.
Before February closes, Wallace State will also travel to Atmore, San Jacinto, Texas, and Gulf Shores for tournaments.
Wallace State's home opener is March 6 vs. Lansing College. The Lady Lions' conference opener is March 15 at Southern Union.
Jeff Benson returns to Wallace State for a third season as assistant coach and Michal Robertson, a former Lady Lion, joins the staff as a volunteer assistant.