SALISBURY, Md. – The Salisbury University softball team begins the 2017 season with new faces, new hopes and a new home. The young squad – featuring 10 returners and nine newcomers – has been dealing with the final construction pieces of the new Sea Gull Softball Stadium, which took the team to a local high school for its fall practices, and learning the new facility, while dealing with the finishing touches of the construction process.
"It kind of got us out of what is usually a very smooth routine, but the bright side is that all of that unease is well worth it when you see our brand new stadium and the young women that are now part of our team," 21st-year Head Coach Margie Knight said. "The players have been able to perform under these circumstances, which are really very different for us, so the games will mentally not be quite as challenging as some of the things we've been through in the offseason and preseason."
The Sea Gulls begin with six games on the road before returning to Salisbury for opening day at the Sea Gull Softball Stadium on March 4.
Those that patrol the new artificial turf at the Sea Gull Softball Stadium will bring the most experience into the new season, with senior Caitlin Lake and junior LeAnne Collins set to lead the group.
Lake will control centerfield, with Collins expected to be in right field, and the two players return after playing significant roles over the past two seasons.
"Caitlin is very vocal, and she's really running the team from center field – which is what you want," Knight said. "She brings that confidence and I'm very happy with the things she's doing."
Lake played in all 43 games last year, starting 41 of them. She hit .409 with seven doubles and a team-best five triples. She was also named a first-team CoSIDA Academic All-American. Collins started every game last year, and is a dangerous batter at the top of the lineup, with a .393 batting average and scored 43 runs. She led the team with 20 stolen bases, and was never caught trying to steal.
"You're going to see LeAnne at the top of the lineup again, and a very aggressive first batter," Knight said. "She's a triple threat – she can slap, bunt, or hit for power."
The left field position is one that is still up for grabs heading into the season opener on February 25, with a host of Sea Gulls battling for time – a theme that exists around the field – following the departure of six players from 2016, all of whom were starters.
The most turnover for the Sea Gulls happens on the infield, where fresh faces will take three of the four infield spots. The lone returner will be junior Kristen Yanarella at first base. The Beacon, New York native played in 29 games last year, starting 21 at first base, and will be looked to for leadership and confidence in the infield.
"Kristen's been really solid and you can tell that she's worked diligently in the offseason to improve her strength," Knight said. "Her bat quickness and footwork around the bag have improved dramatically". Across the diamond, freshman Emily Allen has locked up the starting spot at shortstop, where she moves from being a catcher in high school.
"She's strong and much quicker and more comfortable than she was there in the fall," Knight said.
Movement around the field is nothing new for Knight, who will constantly look for the best softball players, and will work to adjust their positions to fit the need of the team.
"We look for our players to be open minded and learn the new footwork of new positions," Knight said. "We try to take our best softball players and get them on the field, even if it means they are playing something new."
"We're waiting for one to step up and rise above the others," Knight said. "We have this group of players of who want to play but I am waiting for two to rise above the rest. It's not that they're not trying, it's just that as soon as one steps up on offense, another steps up defensively."
Sophomore Brooke Mizelle is the most experienced pitcher returning for 2017, but nothing is set in stone for the staff as Knight enters the year with one of her most balanced pitching units.
Mizelle worked in 26 games in 2016, starting 19 and posting an 18-2 record while striking out 97 and posting a 1.11 earned-run average over 107 1/3 innings in the circle.
"She's been working on a couple of new pitches that may help her in the upcoming games," Knight said. "Part of her success last year was that nobody knew her. Now they'll have a book on her, so by adding a couple new things, she'll keep people guessing."
Returning junior Annie Pietanza and sophomore Shannon Powell each saw action last season with Pietanza appearing in 17 games while Powell pitched in five, with all 22 of their combined appearances coming in relief.
"Both of them are looking pretty good. Annie's speed is up, but what's more important is her consistency around the plate, she's able to target her pitches much better than she did last year," Knight said. "Shannon has improved greatly. If she can maintain what she's done in practice when she gets out in games, I think she will be a huge plus for us."
The fourth face in the mix is junior transfer Rachael Milligan, who comes to Salisbury after two years at Chesapeake College where she won 27 games over the past two seasons.
Another position battle has ensued behind the plate, which may see some shuffling over the first few weeks, with Knight hoping one of the strong candidates can pull ahead and separate herself from the pack.
Each player in the group has their own positives, but none has claimed that top spot.
"They're still battling each and every day to see who's going to be the lead catcher," Knight said. "And that could be a position where a few people get a chance to catch during a doubleheader, or even in one game, as we may use their strengths within a game to benefit the team."
The Sea Gulls begin the season with four games at the Grand Slam Tournament in Cary, North Carolina, an event with some of the top teams in the nation, and the Gulls get two more at No. 19 Virginia Wesleyan College before coming home.
On the weekend of March 4 and 5 Salisbury hosts the Sea Gull Classic, with the opening game, against Clarkson University, marking the first game in the new Sea Gull Softball Stadium, with an opening ceremony beginning at 9:30 a.m., on March 4.
The Sea Gulls play 26 of their scheduled 38 games at home, including a stretch of 24 out of 26 games at home.
Capital Athletic Conference play will begin on Saturday, March 25 with a 1 p.m., doubleheader at the University of Mary Washington and the CAC tournament will be played at the league's top seed on April 20-22.