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February 2, 2013

VSU softball poised for another title run

VALDOSTA — One national championship was not enough for Valdosta State softball coach Thomas Macera. He wants another one. And he wants it this year.

Macera will lead a new breed of Blazers onto the field for the first time in 2013 today, as they their 2012 national championship title defense with a doubleheader against Southern Arkansas in Pensacola, Fla.

“Our expectations are always to make it back to the national tournament,” Macera said. “I believe we have the bodies here to do it again. Our pitching is doing real well (and) we have a ton of hitting. I think our hitting might be more than I’ve ever had, which is saying a lot from last year’s team....Last year’s team was very gutsy and this year’s team is very gutsy, too.”

After losing eight seniors from last year’s championship team, Macera, who has guided the Blazers to four straight Gulf South Conference championships, has reloaded on talent, and is looking to become the first coach to lead a team to become back-to-back softball national champions since Rick Bertagnolli led California (Pa.) to two straight titles in 1997-98.

“The challenge this year is how short is the learning curve?” Macera said. “There are a lot of great athletes out here and I’m very pleased with all the new players and how well they are playing as individuals. But this is a team sport, so it is not that they are not trying to play as a team, they just have to learn each other.”

Heading into the new year, Macera said it will be on this year’s senior class to step up and lead the younger, inexperienced players.

Two of those seniors that will be relied on are Morgan Johnson and Ashley Steinhilber, whom have been key contributors since joining the team in 2010. They will be joined in the leadership position by sophomore Courtney Albritton, the reigning Gulf South Conference Freshman and Player of the Year.

“It is very critical. They have to step up and lead this team,” Macera said. “They have to take control and have to take ownership. They have to push it so we can get there to the end again.”

Albritton returns after leading VSU in every major offensive category as a freshman in 2012, including batting average (.432) and home runs (16). Johnson, a third-team All-American last year, returns after earning the GSC Commissioner’s Trophy during the summer. The 2010 Freshman of the Year, Johnson will once again anchor left field for the Blazers and could be joined in the outfield by her younger sister, sophomore Fran Johnson.

Steinhilber returns as the team’s catcher, her third year as the starter after backing up two-time All-American Alyssa Shirey her freshman year. Steinhilber was named to the Second Team of the Preseason All-GSC teams, and was joined by junior pitcher Brianna Hancock. Albritton and Johnson were both named to the first team, and the Blazers were picked as the preseason favorite to win the conference for a fifth straight season.

Hancock will serve as one of the Blazers’ top pitching options, along with true freshman Hanna Lythberg, a preseason top-newcomer to the GSC.

Lythberg and Hancock will be faced with the daunting task of replacing All-American senior Alanna Hadley, a one-year transfer from the University of Georgia last season.

This year, junior outfielder Shelby Altman is the Blazers’ transfer from Georgia. In eight games with Georgia last season, Altman, a preseason top newcomer in the GSC this season, hit .250. She hit .500 in six games as a freshman.

The Blazers will play four games this weekend — they play a doubleheader against Young Harris Sunday — before visiting Albany State Feb. 11. They open their home schedule Feb. 12 with a doubleheader against Georgia Southwestern.

Following the home doubleheader against Georgia Southwestern, Valdosta State will participate in the Charger Chill Out tournament in Decatur, Ala., playing four games against four different teams.

Then, the Blazers will return home and host the Holiday Inn Classic, a tournament that will add four extra home games to VSU’s home schedule this season. Along with the tournament, the Blazers were given an extra home conference games and will ultimately play five more home dates than all of last year.

“We actually got 13 home dates this year, which we’ve never had before,” Macera said. “I don’t know why everyone wants to play us this year but we will take it. We have 13 home dates this year. We only had eight last year. We are definitely welcoming it. Plus, we have the greatest fans on the planet, so it is really great for our fans base to come out and watch us more at home.”

VSU opens its conference season March 2 with a doubleheader against Union University, one of two newcomers in the conference this year.

Along with Union, Shorter University joins the conference this season. Shorter won the NAIA softball national championship last season, adding to an already tough set of competition in the GSC, which includes national power Alabama-Huntsville.

The annual rivalry games against Alabama-Huntsville will come March 10 in Huntsville and April 14 in Valdosta. Either VSU or UAH has played for the national championship in each of the last four seasons.

The conference tournament will be held May 3-5 in Southaven, Miss. The NCAA Regional tournament begins May 10.

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