Softball team ready to start the 2012 season
Northwest Florida Daily News
Raiders softball team ranked 10th in preseason poll
By TRAVIS DOWNEY Northwest Florida Daily News 315-4476 | email@example.com
When Northwest Florida State College softball coach Jack Byerley first glimpsed the FCSAA Preseason Coaches' Poll, which was released Thursday, and saw his Raiders ranked 10th, his reaction was immediate.
"Thank you, thank you very much,"
Byerley said with a slight chuckle. "It really surprised me. It says a lot … that people have respect for the program."
And with good reason. A year ago Byerley's squad went 41-9 and grabbed a share of the Panhandle Conference title before finishing fourth in the FCSAA Gulf District Tournament.
But as the Raiders raise the curtain on the 2012 season Saturday with the JUCO Classic in Clearwater, Byerley fields a team that returns just five holdovers from a year ago. Gone are offensive cogs Whitney Fletcher (University of Alabama-Birmingham) and Brittany Dunson (University of Mobile), as well as Maria Tanaka and Missy Milligan.
NWF State will be starting over in the circle as well.
Emily Rousseau, the staff ace a year ago who led the Panhandle Conference in seemingly every pitching stat possible, transferred to Western Kentucky. The Raiders other top arm, Allison Rice, has graduated.
"It's going to be interesting," Byerley said. "It's going to be interesting to see how we come out. I hope we come out banging it."
NWF State will not play its first home game until Feb. 29; until then, the Raiders will be living out of their travel bag.
"I wish we had road miles instead of sky miles," Byerley joked. "We'd be well off."
Among those that do return from last year's team is Ashlyn Masters, a sophomore infielder that hit a school-record 27 doubles last season and finished the campaign with a .410 batting average.
Masters signed with North Carolina State last fall.
"She's going to be a terror," Byerley said.
Also returning is Michelle Eubanks, a utility-type a year ago that approached Byerley this offseason about pitching.
"She put herself on that line and said she'd like to do it, so we're going to see how it goes," Byerley said.
Also returning is Gwen Jones, a legitimate Division-I prospect, according to Byerley that boasts one of the strongest throwing arms on the team. Another returnee who is getting Division-I interest and figures prominently into the Raiders' plans this season is Shelby Knox, who started in 49 of 50 games a year ago. A power hitter that can drive the ball to all fields, Byerley likened Knox's defensive abilities to former Baltimore Orioles great, Mark Belanger, who won eight Gold Gloves over his career.
"She plays a great shortstop," Byerley said.
NWF State opens Panhandle Conference play on March 17 at Gulf Coast, which begins the season ranked No. 7 in the FCSAA. With Chipola (No. 4) and Tallahassee (No. 2) also calling the conference home, the Raiders face an uphill battle.
"It's going to be interesting," Byerley said. "Anytime you're ranked within the state of Florida, that's very respectful."