SALISBURY, Md. – With the loss of just two seniors from last season, the Salisbury University softball team returns 16 veteran players and adds a plethora of talent to the squad. After finishing with a 37-7 record in 2012, making its 17th NCAA tournament appearance and claiming its 16th consecutive Capital Athletic Conference, the Sea Gulls have one goal in mind and that is to win a national championship. With the talent that Head Coach Margie Knight has seen throughout the preseason she is excited for what the season holds.
"We return an awful lot of good players, including one of the top pitchers in the country, so our sights are not set any lower than they have been in the past years and that is to head for a national championship," Knight said. "We certainly want to be the team to beat in the conference and to win the conference championship, to get ourselves an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament. We want to control our own destiny by beating every team we come across, we would love to go undefeated, I don't know if that's possible, but right now we are undefeated and we'd like to stay that way."
Salisbury returns seven seniors for their final season in catcher Michelle Gravdahl, shortstop Hannah Mills, second baseman Carly Read, outfielders Sarah Alpaugh, Chelsea Brooks and Lindsay McCabe, and designated hitter Lindsay Brown.
In the past three seasons, the group has accumulated three NCAA appearances, three CAC championships, and an array of awards including two All-American nods, four National Fastpitch Coaches Association All-Region first team selections, and 11 All-CAC selections – but the elusive national title remains untouched and is the driving force behind their last season.
Gravdahl has been a mainstay behind the plate for the past two years and her offensive numbers in the last three years show why many opponents decide to bypass the catcher. The Elliott City, Md., native was one of the most walked players in Division III softball last season averaging 0.7 walks per game, ranking 10th in the nation, and when given the opportunity to swing away, Gravdahl has done just that. The senior batted .395 last season with a .533 on-base percentage, scoring 34 runs and driving in 31. She led the team with 13 doubles and added eight home runs, while being walked 31 times.
"I don't know if I can say any more good things then what I've already said about Michelle" said Knight, "Michelle is a big time player and most deservingly an All-American."
Throughout the preseason Knight has seen Gravdahl mature as one of the leaders on the field, becoming much more vocal, and with some minor changes to her batting, the senior is looking to improve upon her already impressive statistics.
Gravdahl will be catching sophomore hurler Rachel Johnson who returns to the circle after a tremendous freshman ca mpaign.
"Rachel had a phenomenal freshmen year," Knight said. "No one knew about her and what they did know about her was absolutely wrong because she worked so hard to improve."
Johnson made an instant impact, pitching her first no-hitter against Grove City College and striking out 14 batters in two different contests. The sophomore sported a 1.19 earned run average in 105 2/3 innings pitched, ranking her 11th in the nation along with the sixth-best strikeouts per seven innings average with 10.4 per game.
Knight has been looking for Johnson to hit her spots like last year and in the last few weeks it looks like she is headed in that direction.
"Rachel is a great worker in the circle, she wants the ball and we want a pitcher in the circle who wants the ball every time – and that's Rachel," Knight said.
Also returning to the circle is junior Kathryn Larson.
"Kathryn looks like she'll be one of our starting pitchers this year without a doubt," Knight said. "Her key is the movement on the ball and changing speeds. She did a great job last year keeping opponents off-balance when she was in the lineup and I expect her to do much the same this year."
In the past two years Larson has had the opportunity to learn from All-American pitchers Erika Brittingham and Kelly Leary and will now get her chance in circle, having pitched just 35 innings in the last two seasons.
"I think that Kathryn can't wait to get out of the starting gate," Knight said. "She has worked extremely hard the last two seasons taking a behind-the-scenes role as one of our up-and-coming pitchers, but she is ready to jump into the circle and show people what she has and I think she'll do great."
Behind Larson and Johnson is a veteran infield that returns three position players from last season in Mills, Read, and first baseman junior Harley Hill.
Mills returns to shortstop after her first year in the high-traffic position. The senior helped turn six double plays and, since joining the team her sophomore year, has quickly become a threat in the box.
"Hannah has worked extremely hard, she was an outfielder her first year and took over shortstop last year and did really great, but this year with the competition from our load of freshman who are on the team it has made Hannah step up even more," Knight said. "Hannah looks smooth and confident in the left side hole and is making play after play at practice."
The senior not only takes care of the ball in the infield but in the box as well.
"I am really proud of the way Hannah is performing," Knight said. "And then you put that big booming stick in the lineup to protect Michelle and now the next step is can we protect Hannah. And with the sticks we have this season I think we'll be able to do that."
Mills averaged .387 last season and led the Sea Gulls in runs scored (48) and home runs (9) and was ranked 34th in the nation in runs per game (1.09) and 43rd in home runs.
To Mills' left returns Read who has been a tremendous defensive player for the maroon and gold for the past three years.
"Carly is maybe one of the best defensive second baseman we have ever had," Knight said. "She makes the routine play look super easy and the fantastic plays look routine."
Over the past three years, Read has managed to keep a fielding percentage of .972, committing just one error in 2012.
"Carly brings stability to our infield, she has been a four-year starter and she will be the leader in the infield," Knight said.
Junior Harley Hill returns to first base, a position that she has held for the past two seasons.
"Harley is a great defensive first baseman that I think that is overshadowed by her wonderful bat," Knight said.
Hill has been yet another mainstay for the Sea Gull offense. The Huntingtown, Md., native hit .351 last season with 10 doubles, two triples and 30 runs scored and got hot in the post-season, hitting .421. The coaching staff is looking for Hill to hit for a little more power this season but has no complaints if the first baseman wants to keep hitting doubles and getting on the bags.
Alpaugh returns for her final season and has been an asset in center field the past two seasons and really shines in the batters box.
"Sarah has a great glove and her ability to track the ball is exceptional," Knight said. "Sarah can hit for power and drop a bunt, so her versatility at the plate is huge for our team."
Alpaugh's team play put her atop the sacrifice hit category as the Eldersburg, Md., native had 16 sacrifice bunts last season while also batting .355 and adding seven doubles and 15 RBIs.
Also returning to the outfield is McCabe. Knight is confident that if the ball is hit in McCabe's direction it will be caught. The senior also adds more power to an already powerful lineup ending regional play with a .357 batting average.
Rounding out the senior returning outfielders is Brooks.
"Chelsea is a great teammate and works as hard if not harder than anyone else on the team," Knight said. "She brings a big left-handed stick into the lineup."
Brooks ended the season with a .326 batting average with two doubles, a triple, a homer and 10 RBIs.
The Sea Gulls have multiple left-handed sticks in the line up and this is something that excites the coaching staff.
"A left-handed batter is not one that many teams get to see often at practice, so when the opponents pitching staff comes across one it can add a different wrinkle," Knight said. "This also benefits our pitching staff because they are used to seeing them all the time."
Another wrinkle in the opponent's pitching may come when they come up against McDowell.
"Angelia is a real self-made player," Knight said. "She has made herself a real threat at the plate, you're going to have to throw her out every time and with her great arm in the outfield she is vying for one of the starting positions."
McDowell earned valuable playing time last season, entering 30 games with 13 starts. The junior went 4-for-6 in NCAA regional play, including a 2-for-2 performance against McDaniel College, ending the tournament with a .667 batting average.
Also vying for time out in the outfield are Malgieri, Gigioli, and Pezzato.
Malgieri brings the ability to bunt, slap or hit for power at the plate while Gigioli brings a powerful bat and one of the strongest arms to the team.
"Molly is probably the most powerful athlete on the team," Knight said. "She has a rocket for an arm and is doing some super things to change her batting style a little bit so we can get her powerful bat into the lineup, and once it all clicks for her she'll be tough to get out of the lineup."
Pezzato also brings a great stick to the team and the coaching staff sees her being used more in an offensive role from what they've seen during the preseason but is very capable of stepping into the outfield and making the plays.
Brown has been looked to in the past few seasons to fill the designate player role but finds competition in many other teammates.
"Lindsay adds a big stick to the lineup and has worked very hard to hit her pitch," Knight said.
With the work in the off-season and preseason the coaching staff is looking for her to come up big this year.
Walther also adds depth to the lineup and could see quality innings behind the plate, as a backup catcher, as well as stepping into the box to come up with a big hit. Walther had a .333 average last season with a .474 slugging percentage and .474 on-base percentage.
Also looking for time in the box and behind the plate is Hoey. Hoey adds yet another powerful bat to the mix and has done quite a bit to have quicker feet behind the plate and could see some quality innings for the maroon and gold.
The Sea Gulls open up their season at home on Sunday, Feb. 24, against Eastern Mennonite University. The doubleheader is scheduled to begin at 12:30 p.m.. After the home opener, SU will head to Virginia Beach for the Virginia W esleyan Beach Blast tournament on March 1 and 2.
"We will be tested right away with Eastern Mennonite," said Knight. "We face a pretty challenging schedule, bringing in SUNY Cortland and Ithaca, as well as traveling to Catholic and Christopher Newport this season."
Salisbury will host two tournaments in March including the Sea Gull Classic at the Henry Parker Complex and the Salisbury Invitational held at the SU Softball Field.
Returning to the Sea Gull schedule is the State University of New York at Cortland and Ithaca College. SU last played the Red Dragons and the Bombers en route to their NCAA Championship appearance in 2009. The Sea Gulls have an all-time 3-3 record against the Red Dragons, last defeating them, 2-1, in the 2009 World Series. SU takes on Ithaca in the Salisbury Invitational; in the teams' last 11 meetings the Bombers hold a 6-5 overall record, but Salisbury earned the last win, 5-2, on March 20, 2009.
In order to guarantee their ticket to the NCAA tournament, Salisbury will look to clinch its 18th CAC title. SU opens conference play with York (Pa.) College on the road on March 30 and then hosts the University of Mary Washington on April 6.
"Our conference schedule is challenging this season," Knight said. "We our expecting York to be a challenging opponent with the addition of their new head coach and with conference play being packed in a three-week span it will be both physically and mentally challenging, but to get to where we want to be we will have to beat the best to be the best."