HANCEVILLE, ALA. -- Wallace State's softball team opens the 2019 season today in Panama City, Fla., with a roster featuring 14 sophomores, including a bevy of returning experience.
The Lions, ranked 13th in the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) preseason poll, return their top two pitchers and the entire outfield this season – a combination that should make Wallace State heavy favorites again in the Alabama Community College Conference.
"We're looking forward to it and feel like we have a good group. We think we're improved offensively and we have veteran pitching returning, so we hope it makes for a memorable season. We've also added some freshmen who we believe will be offensive weapons for us," said third-year coach A.J. Daugherty. "We want to take another step this season and be among the last teams remaining on the final Saturday of the season. It's a process. It's something you build on year after year and day after day. You have to stack good day upon good day. That's what wins championships."
Wallace State softball hasn't missed a beat under Daugherty's watch, winning consecutive ACCC/Region 22 championships since he inherited the program. The Lions finished with a 47-13 record last season, winning their fourth consecutive conference championship and 12th in the last 16 seasons.
Daugherty, who has an 86-31 record in two seasons at Wallace State, also led the team to its 12th appearance at the NJCAA Division I National Championship, where the Lions won their first national championship game under him. Overall, the Wallace State softball program has won two national titles.
Sallie Beth Burch, a member of Wallace State's first national championship team in 2008, has also been a key part of the success and returns for her third year as the assistant coach.
Pitchers Meagan Schwieterman and Lauren Keplinger were significant cogs to last season's success, and both sophomores return to the mound for the Lions this season.
Schweiterman, a Guntersville High grad, was the 2018 ACCC North Division Pitcher of the Year and an All-ACCC Region 22 1st-team selection after finishing her freshman campaign with a 21-7 record and a 2.15 ERA in 36 appearances. She tossed 21 complete games, recording 170 strikeouts in 192 1/3 innings.
Keplinger went 17-2 with a 2.68 ERA in 29 games last season, and fellow sophomore Mabry Norris should log important innings after a strong offseason.
"You don't just jump into the express lane and succeed. You have to go out there and gain experience and learn as freshmen. We have three on this year's staff who pitched for us in pressure-packed situations last season, and I'm interested to see how they continue to evolve and develop. You constantly have to recreate yourself at the college level as a pitcher and these three are good at that. They should complement each other well," Daugherty said.
Freshman Lauren Quigley, out of Guntersville, could also log considerable innings for the Lions after earning Class 5A 1st-team All-State honors at the utility position as a high school senior.
Wallace State's outfield trio of Keeli Bobbitt, Alysia Anderson and Sydney McKissick all return after combining for 189 hits, 114 runs scored and 70 stolen bases last season.
Bobbitt, a Lamar County grad, was the ACCC Tournament MVP and an All-ACCC/Region 22 first-team member. She led the team in average (.454), hits (79), runs scored (46) steals (27) and on-base percentage (.489).
Anderson hit .372 with 36 RBIs and 25 stolen bases, while McKissick hit .354 with 18 stolen bases and 18 RBIs.
"Those three were on base all season and know how to put pressure on a defense. We talk about putting pressure on the other team, and the speed and athleticism they have definitely does that. We expect even bigger things from them this season," Daugherty said.
Katie Burden and Kalynn Holcomb are both back at catcher for Wallace State after the duo combined for 10 homers and 31 RBIs last season, and Sidney Edwards returns to the infield after hitting .307 with three homers and 30 RBIs as a freshman.
Kaley Anthony, Becca Feazell, Taylor Goodpastor, Hannah Ingram and Morgan Weatherwax round out Wallace State's sophomore class.
Daugherty has assembled an intriguing freshman class, including Quigley, Chaney Phillips (Gardendale), Callie Ryan (Danville), Addie Robinson (Handley) and Gabby Hilliker (Northside), who each were ASWA All-State selections as high school seniors.
"Addie May Robinson has the potential to be a big-time hitter for us. She has tons of pop and handles the bat well. Chaney Phillips has the opportunity to contribute significantly offensively and defensively. She's an all-around solid player," Daugherty said. "Callie Ryan has a lot of offensive tools at the plate and should be a strong contributor right away."
Rounding out the freshman class are Jordan McMeans (James Clemens), Riley McWaters (Tuscaloosa County), Katelyn Williams (Hatton) and Katie Wood (Guntersville).
"This team has a chance to be a special one. The pieces are there and this team enjoys working hard and getting better," Daugherty said. "We've got to continue to lay the right blocks on the foundation and reap the rewards when the time is right."
At this weekend's Gulf Coast Classic, Wallace State plays Gulf Coast CC, Gordon State, Coastal Alabama-South, Northwest Florida State and Georgia Military College.
Wallace State's home opener is Feb. 12 vs. Chattanooga State. The Lions' conference opener is March 19 at Snead State.