Photo by Mitchell Williams

Tech’s softball team will enter the 2017-2018 season with the thrills of mystery and anticipation. A new coaching staff and  young team, including a relatively large group of freshmen, will try to bring the team back to prominence. The 2017 season marked the end of former head coach Shelly Hoerner’s time with the Jackets, as Athletic Director Stansbury announced the decision to choose a new head coach for the team in the upcoming season: Aileen Morales.

Morales, a former student-athlete with the softball team at Tech who had previously acted as the Jackets’ assistant coach after her college career, played and coached during a span in which the team reached four Atlantic Coast Conference championships, four ACC Tournament titles, eight NCAA regionals, and an NCAA Super Regional. She has experience leading a softball team as well, coming from Young Harris College and Radford University, where she served as head coach following her time at Tech. At both universities, Morales saw significant bouts of success, including numerous wins and the turnaround of an NCAA Division I program at Radford. Furthermore, she has international experience as both a player and as a coach with the Puerto Rican national team, which could work out well for a team that has been known to travel outside of the mainland for tournaments.

Joining Morales is a new pitching coach, Alison Owen, as well as Kate Kantor who returns as a volunteer assistant coach and Charisse Mariconda as the Jackets’ hitting and outfield coach. Owen spent time as an assistant coach for the Akron Racers after pitching for the team between 2014 and 2016. Born and raised in Georgia, Owens attended school and played softball at Mississippi State for two years, posting leading stats and helping the team to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances.

Kantor joins Morales as a returner to the Flats and former standout player for the Jackets. Her team reached three regular season ACC Championships, as well as three ACC Tournament Championships, while she was twice named All-ACC, All-ACC Tournament, and an All-Region selection. She was an essential member of a team that reached the NCAA Super Regional Tournament for the only time in Tech’s history. Before working as an assistant softball coach at Duke, primarily with catchers, outfielders, and hitters, Kantor was a graduate assistant coach across the Research Triangle at UNC. She also served as the tournament director for several tournaments, including the ACC/Big Ten Challenge in which Tech plays annually.

Mariconda comes directly from the position of assistant coach at Fordham University and is spoken highly of by her colleagues. She played at Virginia Tech during the same time span as Morales, creating an interesting and competitive environment for the two to work within and instill in the players of which they now share oversight. Morales and Mariconda also competed together as players on the Puerto Rican National Team, so the two have quite a bit of history which will hopefully build upon the chemistry of the team itself.

The freshmen have already gotten some collegiate experience under their belts in the classroom, but also will be expected to make an impact on the field. All nine freshmen were four-year letterwinners at their respective high schools and a few also participated in multiple sports during their four years, making the team extremely athletic and versatile.

The team will be led by seniors Malea Bell, Kendall Chadwick, Kelsey Chisholm, Emily Anderson and Draven Sonnon, all of whom are originally from Georgia, barring Chisholm who hails from Jacksonville, Florida. Anderson, Chisholm, and Sonnon all wrapped up the last season with notable stats, while Bell was praised for having a breakout year at third base after starting for all 48 games of the past season. Each of the seniors spent a good amount of time starting in their respective positions last season.

The Jackets announced their 2018 schedule at the end of December, a schedule which features powerhouses within the ACC such as Florida State and North Carolina, as well as non-conference matchups such as Alabama and Georgia. It was also revealed that Mewborn Field will be the home of the 2018 ACC Tournament in early May, an exciting event that the Jackets hope to participate in. Conference action becomes the most prevalent in March and April, with series against North Carolina State, Virginia Tech and other rivals.

The team kicked off its season last week with what was projected to be a four-game series in Gulf Shores, Ala. The Jackets lost two games to Lipscomb and Florida A&M in close but very different matches. In the first game, Tech took Lipscomb all the way to extra innings, and lost 1-0 in eight. In the second, they battled a shootout with the Rattlers, falling 8-6. The 6-0 lead Florida A&M amassed in the top of the third inning was just too much for the Jackets to overcome, despite their best efforts.

Nevertheless, there was plenty of upside. After freshman Naomi Dickerson surrendered 6 earned runs in 2.1 innings, sophomore Brooke Barfield stepped in for the remainder of the game and only surrendered one earned run. If Barfield translates that solid outing into long-term success, she could be the solid starter the pitching staff needs.