Texas Tech Softball 2014 Season Preview|
Feb. 4, 2014
When Texas Tech head coach Shanon Hays looked across the diamond during the first preseason practice of 2014, he noticed a few familiar faces missing.
For Hays, though, it was a group that will determine much of Tech's future, beginning right away when the 2014 season opens Thursday evening at the Lion Classic hosted by Southeastern Louisiana.
"We've been looking forward to this freshman class getting to campus for a while now," said Hays, who is already the winningest coach in program history in just his fifth season. "We graduated several great players who made up quite a bit of our offense but we believe this group can pick up right where they left off."
The Red Raiders have recorded at least 30 wins every season under Hays and narrowly missed out on their fourth-straight NCAA Regional appearance a year ago with a 30-26 record.
To return to the postseason, Tech will rely on a rather young roster that features 16 of 25 players classified as either of a freshman or sophomore. Of the nine upperclassmen, only six were with the Red Raiders in 2013 as Kristi Belshe and Lea Hopson were among the four transfers to join the programs from the junior college ranks.
"We have so much potential," said Powell, one of just three seniors on the roster. "Everybody keeps harping on our youth, and that's true, but we have so potential to tap into. With that youth comes a lot of energy and a lot of excitement and going into the Big 12, we're going to need that."
Powell, Talley and Custer are the only three Red Raiders who played in Tech's last postseason appearance which came at the 2012 Seattle Regional.
Talley and Custer will be looked at not just for their experience, though, as they will be part of a Tech pitching staff that will have a pair of upperclassmen in the circle for the first time in Hays' tenure.
"This may be the most experienced pitching staff I've ever had here at Tech," Hays said. "We have really relied on Cara and Brittany the past two seasons and then Gretchen (Aucoin) came on with a nice freshman season last year. We also feel good about Chandler Moore and our freshman Cassie McClure as well, so I think we are very fortunate to have some depth in the circle."
Talley went 9-5 in 2013 with a team-leading 2.77 earned-run average while Custer, coming off the best season ever for a Tech freshman pitcher, finished 14-16 with a 3.10 ERA after tossing nearly half of Tech's total innings.
They were helped by the emergence of Aucoin, who started in nine games, including several during Big 12 Conference play. The right-hander ended the year 6-3 overall with a 3.35 ERA while hitting .317 at the plate with a home run and nine RBI.
Hays and pitching coach Aly Sartini plan to add both Moore and McClure in the mix after Moore recorded her best fall so far in her collegiate career while McClure comes in after being named the Texas 4A-5A Player of the Year last year out of Kingwood High School.
"I really feel great about our pitching staff as a whole," said Talley, who enters her senior season already among the Tech career leaders in both wins and ERA. "We know we play a big part in our success, and I think that's something we all enjoy. We want the ball when the game is one the line."
In the field, Tech will be forced to replace its entire outfield along with James at first base. Freshman Brittany Lee and sophomore transfer Kady Crow are expected to help fill the void behind the plate.
Sophomore infielder Samantha Camello is one of three returning position starters for the Red Raiders, joining Powell and Sydnie Tapia. Despite a young roster, Hays says this could be his most talented and deepest club in his tenure.
Hays brought in two NJCAA All-Americans in Hopson and Belshe to boost the front part of Tech's lineup that will also likely include the likes of Aucoin and McClure along with fellow freshmen Kierra Miles, Sydni Emanuel and Brittany Warnecke.
"I think we will still have the same type of power and offense that we've had in years past," Hays said. "We recruited these kids for what they could do at the plate and we feel they will come in and make us a better team immediately. There will be some growing pains but I like where this group is heading into the season."
Tech will need to play to its potential to navigate through another challenging Big 12 schedule that includes road trips to defending national champion Oklahoma and fellow Women's College World Series participant Texas.
The Red Raiders, who were picked sixth in the conference preseason poll, are no stranger to high expectations
But even with a mainly a new team, the expectations remain the same for Hays.
"We expect to compete and be in contention for a Big 12 title," Hays said. "That's our goal each and every year and this year will be no different. I expect big things from this group and so do they."