By Dylan Vazzano, TTU Sports Information Coordinator/Softball contact
AUBURN, Ala. -- With frigid temperatures blanketing Cookeville, the Tennessee Tech softball team flocks south for the weekend to kick off its 2014 campaign in the Plainsman Invite hosted by Auburn University. The three-day affair begins with an early morning matchup on Friday as Tech will lock up with Louisiana-Monroe at 10:30 a.m. before consecutive doubleheaders on Saturday and Sunday.
Saturday's double dip features matchups with Notre Dame at 9 a.m. and North Dakota State at 11 a.m., while on Sunday the Golden Eagles will clash with host Auburn at 1 p.m. and Louisiana-Monroe for the second time in the weekend at 3 p.m.
"We are definitely excited to get the season underway, especially with the weather of late. We haven't had the chance to get outside much, so I know we are all excited to go down south and get some better weather to play in," second-year head coach Bonnie Bynum claimed on the christening of another softball season. "This tournament is definitely going to test us right off the bat. It's going to see what we are made of early on, but I think we have done a good job of preparing for these opponents and everyone is just really excited to get going."
Tennessee Tech is coming off a 22-28 2013 campaign, finishing in seventh place in the Ohio Valley Conference with an 11-11 mark in Bynum's first year at the helm. The solid season netted TTU with its 19th all-time trip to the OVC Postseason Tournament.
Heading into this year, the Golden Eagles said goodbye to seven players, including four key seniors with the departures of infielders Brittney and Chanelle Spalding, outfielder Melody Christian, and pitcher Claudia Harke. Christian leaves as one of the most prolific offensive players in Tech history, ranking ninth in school history with a .332 batting average, seventh all-time with 234 career hits, tied for fifth all-time with 130 runs scored, and second in program history with 89 stolen bases.
Even with some of the key losses, Tech returns a great deal of offensive firepower, most notably senior catcher Kendall Hooper. The Hermitage, Tenn., native was one of just two players last year to start in all 50 games, finishing tied for first on the squad with four home runs, and second on the team with a .281 batting average.
"Kendall is going to be someone to watch this year," Bynum said on this year's offense. "We are also high on freshman Alyssa Richards and sophomore Olivia Bennett. Those three players will probably be in the meat of our lineup and we expect big things from them."
Richards enters her TTU tenure as a dynamic utility player from Italy, Texas. As a senior out of Italy High School, Richards took home District and Team MVP honors, finishing with video game like numbers of a .553 batting average, six home runs, 52 RBI's, a .729 on-base percentage, and a 1.118 slugging percentage.
The Golden Eagles will also welcome back junior infielder Hannah Eldridge, who compiled a solid 2013 season, starting in 46 games, hitting .268 with a team-leading 24 runs batted in.
Shifting to the center of the diamond and inside the circle, Tech brings an impressive blend of veteran presence and young talent with a 1-2 punch of junior Taylor Ketchum and freshman Danielle Liberatore. As a sophomore in 2013, Ketchum led the Golden Eagles in virtually every pitching category, including 15 victories, a 2.71 earned run average, 147.1 innings, 75 strikeouts, and three shutouts.
As far as Liberatore is concerned, the 5-10 southpaw will suit up in Tech purple and gold after racking up gaudy numbers throughout her high school career at Peotone High School in Peotone, Ill. As a senior, Liberatore went 19-3 with a 0.54 ERA, fanning 213 batters in 141 innings of work.
Looking at the weekend, the Golden Eagles will square off with two schools from "power" conferences in Auburn from the SEC and Notre Dame in its inaugural year in the ACC. The Fighting Irish are coming off a stellar 2013 season in which they went 43-15, earning a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
This year Notre Dame is picked third in the ACC preseason poll after winning the BIG EAST Conference regular-season championship in its final year in the conference. The Irish return a wealth of talent, including USA Softball National Collegiate Player of the Year Top 10 finalist Emilee Koerner, who hit .439 with a team record 21 doubles, 11 home runs, and 47 RBI's in 2013.
Auburn comes into its host tourney after ending last year 30-23, 7-17 in the SEC for a 13th place finish. Two Tigers were named to the preseason All-SEC team, redshirt junior Morgan Estell, who hit .344 with four homers, 23 RBI, and a school-record 60 runs scored last season, and sophomore Emily Carosone, who earned a spot on the All-SEC freshman team after hitting a team-high .389 with four home runs and 35 RBIs.
Tech will also square off twice with Louisiana-Monroe over the weekend, a team that went 19-35 and 3-20 in the Sun-Belt Conference last season.
TTU's final competitor in Auburn, North Dakota State, put together a successful 2013 campaign with a 33-16 overall record and a regular season Summit League Championship after amassing an impressive 17-1 conference mark. 13 Bison return from last year's team.