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February 12, 2009

Challenges await softball team in encore to last season's success

By: Matt Kovatch

Senior Charisse Mariconda, who entered the 2009 season having never missed a game, is Tech's top offensive threat after hitting .340 a year ago.

The 2008 Virginia Tech softball season was one for the ages, as the Hokies enjoyed a magical postseason run to the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City, upset the U.S. national team, featured the national player of the year and won the ACC championship for the second straight year.

Tech was on cloud nine for much of last season, but things come back down to earth this sping as head coach Scot Thomas and the Hokies face more challenges than they’ve had to deal with in quite some time. Here’s a look at some of those challenges and how the Hokies plan to face them:

Challenge #1: A target is on Tech’s back.
The Hokies were the talk of the softball world last spring, and their ACC foes got the chance to hear all about it while watching on television as Tech marched through the NCAA Tournament. While Thomas and the Hokies have focused on the future and not what happened last year, that’s not necessarily the case with Tech’s 2009 opponents.

“Obviously, when you have someone who is the caliber of Angela Tincher – someone who is the national player of the year and basically the Heisman Trophy winner of softball – you have to put that era behind you and you have to move forward,” Thomas said. “The biggest thing I’ve tried to preach to our team is that no matter who is on our roster at this point, we have a bigger target on our back because of the World Series appearance and because of teams seeing us on TV so many times. We need to realize that target is still there and step up to the challenge.”

But it’s not just the World Series and the fact that Tincher relentlessly mowed down so many batters. The Hokies have captured each of the last two ACC tournament championships, in addition to the 2007 regular-season title. Their conference foes are likely sick and tired of the orange and maroon, and they’re waiting to get their next shot at dethroning them.

Challenge #2: Replacing three productive seniors.
Not only is Tincher gone from the roster, but so is three-year starting catcher Kelsey Hoffman and four-year starting outfielder Caroline Stolle. All three were instrumental parts of Tech’s success for a long time, but it’s important to remember that the Hokies have a lot of talent returning. In fact, six starters return, five of which are seniors (outfielder Jess Everhart, third baseman Charisse Mariconda, first baseman Beth Walker, infielder Erin Ota and designated player Jenna Rhodes).

“Hopefully, having all of those players back will pay off for us as the season goes on,” Thomas said. “We can use that maturity to not only give us stability at the beginning of the season, but also to help us peak at the right time later on.”
New pitching coach Barb Sherwood, who spent last season coaching at ACC rival Florida State, has stressed to the team that she still sees a lot of the players whom she was worried about facing when she was a Seminole. Here’s hoping the Hokies recognize that as something from which to gain some confidence.

Challenge #3: Dealing with pitching injuries.
Replacing Tincher’s contributions were going to be difficult enough, but that task has been made even tougher because of a pair of injuries to 50 percent of the pitching staff. Freshman Kristin Graham, a former Georgia Class 5A player of the year, hasn’t been healthy since the fall and still isn’t throwing yet, while junior Heather Lowry was lost for the season when she underwent Tommy John surgery last August.

That leaves sophomore Kenzie Roark, who appeared in 20 games last season and struck out 60 batters in 58 innings pitched, and freshman Abbie Rexrode as the only two arms available to start the season. Thomas said that Roark will do a great job as long as she prevents the long ball, something she demonstrated that she could do in the fall, and that Rexrode will be just fine as long as she stays in the right place mentally. But until Graham gets healthy, the Hokies are walking on thin ice in the circle.

“A staff consisting of a freshman and sophomore is not how you want to go into the season, but that’s all we have right now,” Thomas said. “We have more pieces of the puzzle missing right now than what we had planned on, but that being said, I think we have the type of kids to put behind those young pitchers to still get the job done.”

Challenge #4: Filling the void at shortstop and catcher.

Shortstop Misty Hall was the Hokies’ biggest offensive threat a year ago, and with the graduation of Hoffman, she was set to move to catcher with backup Jess Hodge taking over at short. However, Hodge got homesick and decided not to return to Tech, and Hall was lost for the year because of a violation of university policy. Suddenly, Thomas was in a bind to find starters at two key positions.

“We’re moving some players around and some of them are going to have to step up for us a lot earlier than we anticipated,” Thomas said.

One of those players is freshman Kristen Froehlich, who has been slotted into second base duty now that Ota, a three-year starter at second, will make the transition to short.

The Hokies will also need one of their catchers to step up and fill a need. The two main options include junior Amber Walker, who tallied just 12 at-bats last season, and Kelsey Hensel, a freshman from Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. Thomas said the key for Walker will be relaxing, getting settled in and just playing the game, while Hensel is a “baller” who will just need to learn how to manage a game on the fly.

“Both of those girls are working hard and both will get a shot at the job,” Thomas said. “We’re also working [sophomore] Alicia Field and [freshman] Marra Hvozdovic back there.”

Challenge #5: Scoring runs.
With Tincher gone, the Hokies can no longer count on one or two runs being enough to win the game. The Tech offense is going to have to produce more than they are used to in order to compensate for some growing pains that the young pitching staff might have to weather.

One source of that offense figures to be sophomore Richelle McGarva, a transfer who played one season at Lake City Community College in Florida and who will take over center field as Everhart moves to left to replace Stolle.

“She’s going to be important for us,” Thomas said of McGarva. “She has a great eye for the ball and she makes the lineup a lot more solid from top to bottom. In the end, she’s going factor in big-time. Our expectations are high for her.”

In addition to McGarva and Mariconda, who hit a team-high .340 last year, two other Hokies who might make a splash are right fielder Whitney Davis and first baseman Kim Jalm.

Davis started last season and hit a big home run against Michigan in the NCAA Tournament, but Thomas feels she is poised for a breakout campaign after a solid preseason. Another source of runs could be Jalm, a masher who missed last season due to academic troubles and who is competing for the first base job with incumbent Beth Walker.

Here’s a look at the Hokies’ depth chart:

C Amber Walker Kelsey Hensel Alicia Field
1B Beth Walker Kim Jalm Kristin Graham
2B Kristen Froehlich Erin Ota ---
SS Erin Ota Kristen Froehlich Kristin Graham
3B Charisse Mariconda Alicia Field ---
LF Jessica Everhart Jenna Rhodes Marra Hvozdovic
CF Richelle McGarva Jenna Rhodes Marra Hvozdovic
RF Whitney Davis Jenna Rhodes Marra Hvozdovic
DP Jenna Rhodes Kim Jalm Kristin Graham
P Kenzie Roark Abbie Rexrode Kristin Graham

* Pitcher Heather Lowry will miss the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.