VALDOSTA -- Jessie Ortiz stated confidently that this was her year to shine. As a senior, it's Ortiz's last chance to make her mark in the Valdosta State softball program. All around Ortiz, though, are new faces just looking to make their first appearances for a team that returns three starters.
However, there is one other person, who like Ortiz, needs to make an immediate impact on the program. Graduate assistant Heather Wolbers took over the VSU head coaching position a month ago on an interim basis after the hasty resignation of Kendra McDaniel, who assumed the job under similar circumstances four years ago. McDaniel used a winning season to lift the interim tag, and Wolbers already has established this team as her own.
"Heather is treating us to a whole new level of discipline," Ortiz said. "Kendra was totally different, and I think Heather moving up here is just what we need."
Wolbers said the biggest adjustment moving from graduate assistant to the head coach as been balancing the discipline with a healthy dose of praise.
"The biggest thing of I've learned is making sure you get a good mix of being authoritative and being caring to the athletes," Wolbers said. "Not beating them down everyday without picking them back up."
The Blazers were a beaten down ballclub in February a year ago, winning just three times in the season's opening month. This year, Wolbers wants to control the ups-and-downs better of a long season, beginning at home with today's 1 p.m. doubleheader opener against Clark Atlanta.
"The biggest goal is to come out and have a winning season, not only for myself but for the returning players and new players this year to bring a winning tradition back to the program," Wolbers said. "When you have a lot of downs, it's hard to get back up, so I think if we come out and win early it will help us stay positive and continuing winning throughout the season."
If improved chemistry counts for anything, Ortiz said this year's squad is starting in the right place. After winning seasons under McDaniel in her first three years, the Blazers slumped to a 30-35 season in 2004.
"We were all good individuals, but we weren't coming together as a team until conference began," Ortiz said. "That's when we started picking it up. This team, right from the start basically, has come together. There's only about three starters that have been together for the past two or three years. They're all new and looking forward to stuff. They're asking questions and picking up on the field and looking forward to this year as much as we are."
Ortiz, the Blazers only All-Conference selection, and ace Amanda Edwards are the team's two seniors and provide the backbone of the starting unit. Former Lowndes products will also play integral roles. Freshman Brooke Davis earned Wolbers' nod as the team's most pleasant surprise, winning the starting second base job due to her solid defense and a well-rounded approach at the plate. Sophomore Robin Williams returns to catch and freshman Kristen Lindsey, a third Vikette, will add depth to the pitching staff.
Junior Caroline Cripe should hold down shortstop, while Ortiz hit .266 a year ago at third base, the highest returning average. The outfield should look like Melissa Santana, Lindsey Lloyd and Kristy Shiver from left to right. Holly Willis will be who's on first.
Between McDaniel's departure and the coaches prediction of a fifth-place finish in the Gulf South East Division, the Blazers have ample amounts of motivation.
"A lot of us are hurt with what happened with Coach (McDaniel), about her leaving. A lot of us are disappointed because she did bring us to this school," Ortiz said. "And all of a sudden, she just dropped us like that. A lot of us in our heads are looking forward to proving her wrong, proving to her what she's missing out on and trying to make Heather look good as well as us."
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