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2008 Herd Softball Season Preview

Jan. 30, 2008

Entering its third season in Conference USA, the Marshall Thundering Herd softball team's quest for a conference championship looks better than ever. Returning 14 letterwinners from last year's squad, the Herd will be more experienced and deeper in every position during the 2008 campaign.

"This is the most talent we have had in the one through nine positions," Marshall head coach Shonda Stanton commented. "2008 should be an exciting year; this team offers more power and could potentially be the most explosive offensive team in Marshall softball history."

Stanton is optimistic about the future for the upcoming season and has good reason to be with the return of the 2006 C-USA Player of the Year and three-time NFCA Louisville Slugger All-American, Rachel Folden. The senior catcher has continued to break many hitting records and has collected many accolades along the way leading all C-USA hitters in batting average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage and runs scored in 2007.

Joining Folden on the top returners list is fellow senior Samantha Rodriguez. Rodriguez earned her second straight all-conference selection after a stellar performance at the designated player position, with a conference best 55 runs batted in. Joscelyn Bitter, a second team C-USA selection and conference stolen base leader (31), and sophomore Caitlyn Jackson, a member of the all-freshman team, should improve on their 2007 numbers to propel the Herd to a regular season championship.

During Stanton's eight-year tenure, the Herd has captured three regular season conference championships and appears it could have the arsenal to claim its fourth. With the addition of six newcomers, including Kelly Nielson, the sister of former Herd ace Randi Nielson, and freshmen standouts Melanie Stoehr and Jessica Hughes, the Herd has reloaded.



Along with some of the top players in the conference, the Herd boasts a wealth of softball knowledge through its coaching staff. Stanton has proven to be a winner thanks to a stellar career at Marshall. Continuing to make a name for himself as a top assistant coach is Shane Winkler. Winkler is in his third season and joined up with Stanton to coach the Akron Racers during the summer. Aaron Clopton remains the Herd's pitching coach and played a vital role in shaping the playing careers of seniors Abagail Harter and Amanda Luers in 2007. Under the guidance of Clopton, Harter managed to end her softball career in the record books. Volunteer assistant Amanda Williams will begin her second year as a coach for the squad. Williams' ability to relate to the Herd's hitters and her experience as one of the softball greats has made her a valued asset to not only the team, but the coaching staff as well.

The Infield: The Herd's infield looks to be the most complete and well-rounded area on the field. At first base, the Herd has potentially three different players who can step in at any given time and compete. The favorites to start are freshman Melanie Stoehr and Rodriguez. Rodriguez had a break-out junior season with most of her time spent at the designated player position, but could be used at either spot.

"Sam is going to put up huge numbers this season," remarked Stanton. "She will make it tough on any pitcher that decides to throw around Folden. She has the prettiest, pure swing and will be critical to our success offensively; she is so powerful at the plate," Stanton added.

Stoehr proved this fall she has the maturity to step in as a freshman and become the everyday starter. "Mel had a great fall and showed she has the potential to be a player we can rely on," Stanton said. "She works hard, is disciplined with a lot of skills offensively and defensively and unlimited potential."

Junior Rachel Schmidt has had success in key pinch hit situations and will provide depth at first base. "Schmidt had an injury early fall that limited some development on the field," said Stanton. "However, offensively her swing looks explosive and we are confident she can make a difference. We will need to finds ways to get her at bats. Her walk-off pinch hit homerun against Memphis last season shows she can perform in pressure situations."

After starting 57 games for the Herd at shortstop as a freshman, Marcena Bertoldo will make the move to third base.

"We're excited to see Marcena play with confidence and trust her ability," Stanton said of her new third baseman. "She has the flash to make the spectacular play on the hot corner and will sure up the 5-6 hole. We look for her to be a consistent performer both offensively and defensively."

Backing up Bertoldo at third is Georgia State transfer Jackie Jaegle. "Jackie has a lot of skill and just needs to fine tune a few mechanical aspects of her game, Stanton said. "She brings a ton of energy and knowledge and has proven success at the collegiate level. Our key is to find the best place in our rotation to unleash her potential."

Shutting down the middle portion of the infield will be senior Deanna Tourville and newcomer Nielson. Tourville will take over second base as she looks to have a successful final campaign after an injury limited her playing time in 2007. After averaging 56.5 games her first two years, Tourville only played in 29 games during her junior season.

"Deanna is back, looking better than ever up the middle," Stanton claimed. "She will be quite a force who will get the job done in the field and at the plate. We will rely heavily on Dee and her senior buddies to lead us to the post season."

Across the diamond from Tourville will be Pima Junior College transfer Kelly Nielson. Nielson, a 2006 Louisville Slugger/NFCA NJCAA Division I All-America Second Team selection, put up big numbers for Pima leading NJCAA hitters with 18 home runs and a seventh national ranking with 61 RBI's. "Kelly is a strong athlete with all the right tools to be a steady force for us at short," said Stanton. "She had a huge career at Pima and needs to bring that same mind set to the Herd."

Backing up Nielson is local sophomore Lacy Davidson. Davidson saw limited time in her first season with the Herd, but continues to improve.

"Lacy is a great athlete to have in the program, stated Stanton. "She continually works hard in the classroom and on the field while pushing her teammates to be better. Her passion and positive energy is contagious."

The Outfield: The Herd's outfield is one of the deepest positions on the roster with the possibility of six different student-athletes competing for only three spots. The Herd outfield is one of the quickest in the league with junior speedsters Bitner, Kristina Knecht, and Rachael Sofie as well as freshman Jessica Hughes, all of whom have the tools to come in and make positive impacts at their respective positions.

Bitner should return for her junior season to take the reins in center field. Bitner is a vital component in the Herd's offensive line up as she hit .351 with 67 hits in 2007. Bitner's combination of foot speed and arm strength makes her one of the deadliest center fielders in the conference. "JJ will showcase her talent as one of the best outfielders in the league, Stanton agreed. "She is an exciting player to watch and I am proud of her character and growth she has displayed this fall."

Another key returner is starter Rachael Sofie, who started 54 games with a .255 batting average as a sophomore. With her experience, Sofie will be the Herd's primary left fielder. She became a leader in left field last year and her teammates will call upon her to step up in key situations to lead the team. "Sofie finished last season strong and is primed to have a break-out year," Stanton said. "She has worked hard this fall and will be a key contributor in an already strong offensive attack. Sofie will be a force in the meat of our line-up and will be a clutch performer."

Knecht could be a starter in centerfield or right field and has showed she is ready to step in and make a positive impact for the Herd. Knecht proved to be a valuable asset to the team filling in at second base last year with the injury to Tourville. She has been moved to the outfield to make the position deeper and make the line-up stronger. "Knecht's athleticism will make the transition from second to the outfield much easier," Stanton said of the position switch. Her natural speed and reaction to the ball will be relied upon in the outfield. Knecht has all the tools offensively to provide a quick spark to a power filled line-up."

Coming off a solid freshman campaign, Caitlyn Jackson will see much of her playing time on the mound, but with her impressive offensive ability she will also start in the outfield. "Caitlyn is one of the better raw athletes I have seen. As she continues to mature and narrow her focus, she has the ability to be a future C-USA player of the year."

Freshman Jessica Hughes will compete for the starting spot in right field. Hughes is known for her speed and is the fastest player on the Herd roster. Hughes had a strong fall season and appears ready to start in right field. Regardless, her speed will not go unnoticed as she will also be utilized in key pinch running situations. "Jessica will be one of the fastest players in the conference," said Stanton. "Her speed will put pressure on the defense and it gives her the ability to make things happen. She was a much needed late signee for our program, and we are very pleased with her development thus far. As she gets comfortable in our system, she will provide a huge spark."

Sophomore Tara Holmes can also vie for playing time in the outfield. Holmes has been used as a situational player and has made significant contributions in key games for Marshall. "Tara is a key role player who could challenge for time in the outfield," Stanton said. "Her job will be to come off the bench in important situations. Her enthusiasm elevates our team's energy."

Junior transfer Virginia Campbell is unavailable in the outfield for 2008, but has proven to help her teammates. "Ginny has been a valuable asset to our team even without the ability to travel and dress this season," Stanton said. Her positive attitude and work ethic are a true reflection of a Marshall Softball student-athlete."

The Designated Player: With an already incredible hitting line up the Herd will have no problem filling the designated player position. With three possible student-athletes who could start at the DP position the difficulty will be trying to secure each of them enough bats.

Last year, Rodriguez controlled most of the starting role at the DP position and was recognized for her efforts. With a .321 batting average, which included 17 doubles and 11 home runs, Rodriguez looks to be the favorite to start.

However after an impressive sophomore year, Schmidt will receive more at bats to help contribute to this high powered offense. Schmidt's hitting ability is often remembered with her walk off home run against Memphis. During the 2007 season, Schmidt had only 113 at bats, but still managed 23 hits with four home runs.

Transfer Jaegle is the third member of this elite group challenging for playing time. Jaegle had two stellar seasons at Georgia State as she hit .353 in 2006 for the Panthers. Still an unknown to the coaching staff of what she can do, Jaegle has showed promise with her work ethic in the weight room and on the field. If she continues to produce in practice, the Georgia native could see meaningful playing time in her first season at Marshall.

The Catcher: It's no secret who will be the starting catcher for the Herd. Entering her final season at Marshall, Folden is arguably the greatest player in Marshall softball history. Already snagging almost every award possible, the only thing left for Folden to accomplish is a trip to the post season.

"What is else is there to say about Folden with all that she has accomplished," Stanton proclaimed about her All-American catcher. "She is one of the best players in the country and I look forward to watching her match-up at the plate against some of the top teams on our schedule. We know that she will be the focus of every opponent's scouting report, so it is reassuring to see how Folden has helped make her teammates better."

Folden is the complete catcher and will help a young pitching staff. She will most likely lead off for the Herd, which she did for most of last season. A questionable move at the time, but with the increased at bats for Folden, and with the number of intentional walks, the decision paid off for the Herd. The California native had a career high in runs scored last season with 47.

Backing up the three-time All-American will be Stoehr, Jaegle and Lisa Sandford. Stoehr and Jaegle are battling for various positions on the field and could be used to give Folden a break from time-to-time.

Sandford has grown to become a valued player behind the scenes for the Herd. Despite not seeing actual playing time, Sandford has helped out the Herd's pitchers in practice. "Lisa has really grown to understand the importance of knowing her role and helping the team within that role," Stanton said. "We appreciate her availability to make our pitchers better and commend her for that commitment."

Pitching Staff: After losing two starting pitchers, the Herd pitching staff is young and inexperienced, but talented and diverse. The youngest position on the field for the Herd (one junior, two sophomores and a freshman), the ability to gain experience quickly is what the Herd will look to accomplish during its difficult non-conference schedule.

Sophomore Erin DeStefano received brief playing time in her first season appearing in 13 games with a 2-0 record, but has worked hard all summer and fall to compete for a starting spot in the rotation. "Erin is one of the harder workers on the team, and she brings her best effort every time out, said pitching coach Aaron Clopton. `She will be counted on to lead us into battle many times this season. Erin has grown and continues to develop and we are excited to see her production this year."

With the return of Jackson, the coaching staff looks to improve on her consistency. She ended the season with a 4-4 mark and made seven starts with 15 appearances. She had a 3.79 ERA and earned a shutout and a save in her first year on the mound. "Caitlyn is one of our most-talented members of this staff and will be counted on throughout this season to mow through opposing lineups, said Clopton. With natural movement and good velocity, Jackson has the ability to achieve success with numerous tools."

Autumn Mitchell has patiently awaited her turn to earn a spot in the rotation. Mitchell made her first career start last year, but still saw limited time in her sophomore year. Now as a junior and with the combination of a solid fall and offseason campaign, Mitchell is expected to compete for the starting ace job.

"Autumn has developed into an effective pitcher and has the potential to contribute in the circle this year, said Clopton. Mitchell utilizes an effective changeup and great movement to keep opposing hitters at bay."

Freshman Rachel Rillo rounds out the pitching staff. "Rillo gives us a second left-handed option with a naturally-deceptive motion, said Clopton. She has the ability to move the ball all four directions and change speeds for success."

Even with its inexperience, the Herd is confident in the staff's ability to keep the team in every ball game.

The Schedule: The Thundering Herd's quest for a Conference USA Championship and a bid to the NCAA Regional will be the toughest in Stanton's tenure, given Marshall's non-conference schedule. The Herd will take part in four invitationals, before entering C-USA action. The 2008 schedule consists of eight NCAA Regional participants and three 2007 Women's College World Series teams

"This is our toughest schedule in program history and it is a reflection of the confidence we have in this year's team," Stanton said. "We believe it is time for our program to take a step forward to post season play. Our competition in non-conference contests will help us gear up for the battle in the CUSA title run. We will be challenged every single time we step on the field and we will need to be committed to getting better every day."

To open the 2008 season, Marshall travels to Athens, Ga., for the Red/Black Showcase hosted by the University of Georgia (Feb. 8-10). The Herd begins tournament play against DePaul, a member of the 2007 WCWS, before meeting the College of Charleston and NCAA Regional qualifier, Georgia.

The Herd hits the road for its second tournament, the Tiger Invitational, hosted by Auburn University (Feb. 15-17). Marshall meets the likes of Gardner-Webb, McNeese State and Furman before taking on Auburn, who finished last season with a RPI rank of 41. The Herd closes out the tournament against Evansville.

For its third straight weekend on the road, the Herd trek across country to San Diego, Calif., for the University of San Diego Tournament (Feb. 22-24). Marshall competes against four West Coast schools, including Nevada, host San Diego, UC Riverside and NCAA Regional attendant Loyola Marymount.

Marshall concludes tournament play with a trip to Chattanooga, Tenn., when it contends in the Frost Classic (Feb. 29-March 2). The Herd squares off against Ohio Valley Conference's Eastern Illinois in the opener, before challenging Mid-American Conference member Buffalo, with the SEC's Kentucky to follow. Marshall rounds out tournament play against Jackson State and host Chattanooga.

Following the conclusion of its final tournament, the Herd heads into Conference USA action against Memphis (March 8). Last year the Herd edged Memphis 2-1 in the C-USA tournament. In its third season of C-USA action, the Herd looks to return to the championship style of play that has distinguished the program over the last few years. During its inaugural campaign, Marshall finished second and earned a spot in the championship title game.

The Herd then battles two straight NCAA Regional participants when it travels to Louisville, Ky., and returns home for the other. Marshall competes against the Cardinals (March 12) in a double header, before hosting its home opener against the 2007 C-USA regular season and tournament champion, Houston Cougars (March 15), in the new $2.5 million softball facility.

Marshall hits the road, for arguably the toughest road trip in program history, when it plays C-USA foe UTEP (March 21-22) and then continues its way West to Arizona. The Herd will match up against two WCWS participants including last year's national champion. Arizona State (March 25) is on tap first for the Herd. ASU reached the WCWS after claiming the Regional Champion and then besting LSU in the Super Regional. The Sun Devils were knocked out of the WCWS by DePaul.

The Herd then meets up with the NCAA National Champion the past two years, Arizona (March 26), in Tucson. Marshall is looking to avenge a 2005 loss against the Wildcats.

After it's viscous road trip, Marshall returns home to battle Central Florida (March 29), before traveling north to battle Big 10 and 2007 NCAA Regional member, Ohio State (April 2). East Carolina (April 5) and Ohio (April 9) follow.

UAB (April 12), Morehead State (April 15), Southern Miss (April 19) and Tulsa (April 27) round out play in the month of April.

The Herd concludes the 2008 regular season against Georgetown (May 3), with the C-USA Championship to follow, May 8-10. The conference tournament is hosted by Houston. A new single elimination format will be implemented to the 2008 C-USA tournament.