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February 14, 2012

Loaded lineup has Tech softball squad looking for big things in 2012

By: Marc Mullen

Bkaye Smith started all 56 games a season ago and is a terrific fielder at second base.

At first glance, the 2012 Virginia Tech softball team may look young and inexperienced, with just two seniors and four juniors on the roster. Add in that the Hokies’ top pitcher in terms of games started, played and innings pitched was lost to graduation and thoughts of a rebuilding year could enter the mind.

Head coach Scot Thomas agrees to a point that there, “is going to have to be a lot of patience and perseverance with the way our schedule goes.” However, the team that posted 38 wins last year and scored the second-most runs of any ACC team has six of its top seven offensive weapons back and is poised for a postseason run.

“Given that we have almost everyone back on offense and that we also have a lot of young talent coming in that we have high expectations for, that’s pretty exciting,” Thomas said. “But we are going to play a tough schedule, and we understand that there’s going to be a learning curve to it. But this is probably the most talented, deepest lineup that we’ve ever put out there.”

Scouting the lineup, Thomas believes that he will have two freshmen at the top of the order in leadoff batter Lauren Gaskill and two-hole hitter Kylie McGoldrick. Gaskill is a left-handed hitting outfielder who batted .581 and had a .652 on-base percentage her senior season at Rancocas Valley High in New Jersey and pounded out 191 career hits. Also a left-handed hitter from New Jersey, McGoldrick is slotted for second base and hit .576 as a senior. She broke Sterling High’s career hits record with 160, and she also posted a .983 fielding percentage – two errors in 118 chances – last year.

“Then you are looking at three of our top hitters coming back in Courtney Liddle (.370 batting average in 2011), Dani Anderson (.363) and Betty Rose (.313), who led our team in home runs (12) and did a great job for us,” Thomas said.

Two more freshmen in Kelsey Mericka, the Gatorade player of the year in Georgia after a .532 average, with 11 home runs and 37 RBI her senior season, and Logan Spaw look to fill the next two spots.

“One of our top hitters in the fall was Logan Spaw, and she’s probably going to be our designated player,” Thomas said. “But we also have Kristen Froehlich back and that gets us pretty deep, and I haven’t even talked about Kat Banks or Bkaye Smith.

“When you get to the bottom of our order, that gets us pretty excited because we are going to go that deep. Sometimes when we are playing teams, we tell our pitchers to go right after those eight and nine batters, but we’re going to welcome it from other teams because these kids can all hit.”

Knowing that there is the potential for such a potent offense, Thomas has taken an “all hands on deck” approach for his pitching staff after Kenzie Roark left Blacksburg, the owner of 51 career wins, 15 shutouts and 510 strikeouts in 661.1 innings pitched.

Junior Jasmin Harrell returns after a season in which she led the team in wins (19), ERA (2.94) and strikeouts (152) and will be joined by a number of younger pitchers. There is sophomore Banks, sophomore transfer Lauren Darden and freshmen Isabella Corrao, Bailey Liddle and Beth Isaacs.

“I think we have a whole new scenario pitching-wise than we’ve ever had,” Thomas said. “Not only do we have our No. 1 back in Jasmin, but we have Kat Banks back, who’s going to be able to throw for us now. Because of injuries last year, we weren’t able to get her going where we wanted her as a pitcher.

“Then throw (the newcomers) into the mix. The bottom line is we’ve got more pitchers that we can count on than ever before. It’s just going to be a matter of who is stepping up and getting it done at the time.

“If we have to pitch by committee a little bit, then that’s what we’ll do. If someone can come out and throw seven innings, that’s great. If not, then we’ll do whatever we need to do. We have the offense that we feel will make it happen. The positive is we are deeper with everyone that we have. It’s just a matter of seeing who steps up when we need them to.”

The biggest obstacle that Thomas sees for his young squad – five sophomores and 10 freshmen – is the schedule. The first half of the season will find the Hokies facing 12 teams that are currently ranked or receiving votes in the preseason polls.

Not including the conference opponents, on the slate are nine teams that played in the 2011 NCAA Softball Championships and three that made the trip to the College World Series.

“Given our youth, we’re at a point right now where we need to play,” Thomas said. “We’re either going to do great or make some mistakes that we can learn from. So it’s a matter of filtering those things out and improving on the things we need to do. It’s just a very talented young group, and I have a lot of high expectations for what they can do.”

The Hokies will have their chances to play, with a tournament in Florida their very first weekend. It includes a pair of games against UNCG and a contest versus the hosts and defending Atlantic Sun Conference champions Jacksonville Dolphins.

The second weekend is the killer, though, as three conferences send two teams each to Auburn, Ala., to take part in the ACC/Big 12/SEC Challenge. The Hokies will square off with 2011 CWS participants Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Alabama, along with the host Tigers.

“That second weekend, three of the four teams were in the World Series last year,” Thomas said. “We’ve already talked about it. It’s one of those deals. There’s never been a team that has won a national championship that’s gone undefeated. But what we have to do is win a game or two and take the lessons and move forward.

“So we are talking about a crazy schedule. Yeah, it doesn’t have UCLA or Arizona, but it does have top-notch teams. Then you follow that with the ACC. So we need to learn and survive that first half of our schedule

“We’ve already talked to the team about it being a two ‘half’ seasons. Everyone has bought into it. They are on board. And if we take some tough losses, we have to learn from them and move on. But it should be a fun season.”

The ACC portion of Tech’s schedule will see North Carolina, Florida State and Virginia visit Blacksburg at Tech Softball Park. The ACC Championships are set for May 10-12 in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Six things to know about Courtney Liddle

1. I love to draw and paint. I kind of use that as my Christmas gift to people. I just love to paint things for people. My favorite class I ever took at Virginia Tech was a three-hour drawing course every Monday and Wednesday. We got to draw models and different objects, and I loved it. It was awesome.

2. I love catching. I’ve caught my whole life. That’s where my heart is. But playing first base, I get to interact with my teammates more, and I get to work on my hitting more during practice, so I really think that’s what is best for the team right now, and I’m just so pumped for that and doing what I need to do for the team.

3. I’m so excited about having my little sister (Bailey, who is a pitcher) playing for us this year. I really want to convince Coach Thomas to just give me one opportunity, maybe my senior year, to let me catch her. That would be great. But I’ve just told her to work hard every day and give it all she’s got. If she just does what she needs to do, it’s going to happen for her as well.

4. Pregame, I have one CD that I listen to on the way to a game. It is filled with Christian rap music that gets me pumped up, but it also inspires me, too. During the game, whenever I step up to the plate, I tap my chest and then point out to the field and it means, “From the heart. To the team.” I’ve done that since I was 9 years old when a coach told me that I needed to play more for the team than for myself. Some girls think I’m being cocky until they find out what the meaning is. That just gets me focused every time in the box as to why I am playing.

5. My favorite uniform combination is the white jersey, white pants and orange socks. I think it’s just so professional and clean cut. The whole white uniform on a home field, growing up, that was just engraved into my mind, so I love that.

6. The story behind my number goes back to when I was 8. My mom (Susan) was coaching my all-star team, and I was always No. 8 and some other girl wanted it. So my mom didn’t want to play favorites. She said, “Courtney, you’re going to get whatever number is left over.” So I got stuck with 12, and I just got so prideful of that number and have held on to it since.