MONTGOMERY, Ala. ---- After a historical season in 2012, which culminated in the program's first trip to the NAIA National Championship tournament, this year's Auburn Montgomery softball squad is looking to establish itself as consistent contenders on the national stage.
The Warhawks finished 42-20 last year, clinching the first 40-win season in the short four-year history of the program. They were one game away from clinching their first Southern States Athletic Conference title, falling to William Carey 3-0 in the championship game.
Finishing as the conference runner-up was enough to seal a national tournament berth, however, and AUM displayed its worthiness by winning all three games in bracket play. The Warhawks' memorable season finally came to an end in pool play with a 4-1 defeat to national runner-up Oklahoma City.
"It was an amazing ride," head coach Chris Steiner-Wilcoxson said. "It was a four-year journey. Our seniors helped build the program from the ground up, and it was great to see them rewarded for their efforts. Now it's time to start over, turn a new leaf, and continue to build on that success."
Four-time NAIA All-American Brandi Richards and 2012 All-American Shea Driggers are among the key departing seniors from last year. Richards went 16-10 with a 1.17 earned-run average as a starter, striking out 250 batters in 174.0 innings. She also hit .312 from the plate. Driggers led the team with 30 RBIs while hitting .317.
AUM will also have to replace the veteran leadership of Danielle Kirkpatrick behind the plate. Kirkpatrick started 55 of the team's 62 games last year, guiding a pitching staff that had a collective ERA of just 1.45, with 18 shutouts.
"We lost a good deal of seniors who were vital to our program," Steiner-Wilcoxson said. "It will be interesting to see who steps up. Our returners from last year got the taste of what it takes to be winners, and they're really pushing to help our young players understand what it will take for us to compete at that level year in and year out."
Perhaps the most important of those returners is junior shortstop Jyssica Pepper. The only player to start all 62 games, Pepper led the team in batting average (.323), runs (46), stolen bases (14), doubles (11) and slugging percentage (.497). She also tied for the team lead with five home runs and a .394 on-base percentage.
The Madison, Ala. native earned SSAC All-Conference honors for her efforts. As an upperclassmen, Steiner-Wilcoxson hopes for continued development from Pepper in all facets of her game.
"Pepper has everything it takes to be an All-American, All-Conference type player," Steiner-Wilcoxson said. "She's been an everyday impact player her entire career. We're really looking forward to what she brings this year as a leader anchoring the left side of the infield."
Pepper is one of three starters returning across the diamond for the Warhawks. Sophomore Katie Spain will be back at third base, while senior Haley Johnson returns at second.
Spain appeared in 52 games, making 45 starts for AUM. She hit .276 with 35 runs scored and 15 RBIs. The Whittier, Calif. native was one of the top offensive performers during the fall season, and Steiner-Wilcoxson has high expectations for her in the spring.
"Katie worked extremely hard last year," Steiner-Wilcoxson said. "She gained a lot of experience and got better every day. She carried that over into the offseason, and just had a tremendous fall. She hit great and played great defensively. We're counting on her big time."
Johnson hit .299 with eight doubles, and her 49 hits were third-most on the team. She also made nine appearances as a pitcher, finishing with a 4-2 record and a 1.84 ERA.
"Haley is a great all-around athlete," Steiner-Wilcoxson said. "She can play the field and hit, and that's where we need her the most right now. But we know she's an option on the mound if we need her."
The Warhawks used a mixture of Sarah Suggs and Kacie Ryal at first base last season, and neither will return in 2013. Steiner-Wilcoxson expects a variety of players to fill the void at first, including junior college transfer Jade Sasser, senior Katie Cornelius and freshman Kayla Hale.
"We brought in Jade from Central Alabama Community College," Steiner-Wilcoxson said. "She's a big hitter with a lot of athleticism, and she's a great leader. But she's battled some injuries and we're not sure how much she'll be able to play. We're just trying to find a good fit, someone who can get it done both offensively and defensively."
Freshmen Jennifer Jenkins and Katie Brinkman will also battle for playing time around the infield. Jenkins can play at second and third base, while Brinkman will backup second base and shortstop.
"They both have a lot of versatility," Steiner-Wilcoxson said. "They're solid kids with very good work ethics. We're fairly confident that if something were to happen in terms of injuries, that we have great backups who are ready to fill those slots."
AUM will have three catchers attempting to fill the void left by Kirkpatrick. Senior returner Holly Saint is joined by junior college transfer Leslie Kelly and freshman Lauren Shaw.
Saint started seven games behind the plate in 2012, collecting three hits in 11 at-bats. Kelly hit .367 with 20 home runs during her two seasons at Central Alabama CC, winning a state championship in 2011. Shaw graduated from North Forsyth High School in Cumming, Ga., where she hit .455 as a senior.
"With all of the catchers, they have to be able to learn how to handle all of the pitchers," Steiner-Wilcoxson said. "That's the most important thing before the season, just building up that chemistry. Danielle had been with the pitchers for four years, so it's going to be hard to fill that role overnight."
Junior left fielder Laci Driggers headlines the returners from an outfield which will have to deal with the losses of Richards and four-year starter Joanna Reynolds. Driggers earned SSAC All-Division accolades after hitting .287 with 22 RBIs. She added 10 stolen bases and nine doubles, both of which were second-most on the team.
"Laci has a great arm and great athleticism," Steiner-Wilcoxson said. "She plays all-out. You'll always see her dive and take that extra bag. Her wide-openness really makes her a great player. I'm thoroughly looking forward to seeing what she brings to the team this year."
Senior Rachel Stuart returns as well, with the expectation that she will be the starting right fielder. Stuart has seen significant playing time in each of her last two seasons at AUM, and she has amassed a career batting average of .255 with 40 hits overall.
"Rachel has made vast strides throughout her four-year career," Steiner-Wilcoxson said. "We really need her to step up and be a consistent threat at the plate this season. Defensively, she's one of the best outfielders in the conference."
Steiner-Wilcoxson also expects a lot from Emma Johansen. The senior newcomer excelled at Division II West Florida last year, hitting .382 with a .459 on-base percentage and 25 stolen bases in 29 attempts. She earned second-team all-conference honors as a result, and is expected to play center field and hit at the top of the lineup this season for the Warhawks.
"Emma brings a lot of athleticism, and she's proven herself at the Division II level," Steiner-Wilcoxson said. "She will hopefully fill that leadoff spot for us, allowing us to move Pepper back into a 3-4-5 slot where she can really produce in terms of driving in runs."
Sophomore returners Amie Kelly and Ainsley Faulk join freshman Paige Nielsen in making up the rest of the outfield.
"Amie and Ainsley have both worked really hard in the offseason and fall to get ready to fill the void left by last season's seniors," Steiner-Wilcoxson said. "We also have Paige, who is one of the strongest pure athletes on our team. She has a great stick, and could help fill in at the DH spot."
While replacing Brandi Richards as the ace of the staff is a monumental task, sophomore Cassie Daniels certainly made a good case for herself during her debut season. Daniels earned SSAC All-Freshman and All-Division team honors after going 13-7 with a 1.77 ERA in 30 appearances (22 starts). She struck out 161 batters in 150.1 innings, and held opponents to a .203 batting average.
"Cassie had a great year as a freshman," Steiner-Wilcoxson said. "She threw a lot of big games for us. I think having Brandi as a role model really helped her grow and establish herself in our conference. We're excited about what her sophomore year will bring. I think that she will really strive hard to fill the void from Brandi's departure."
Freshmen Kayla Hale and Taylor Powell will also see plenty of time on the mound for the Warhawks, along with freshman Liz Taylor.
"Kayla is the first lefty pitcher that we've ever had," Steiner-Wilcoxson said. "We're really excited about her and what she brings to the table. Taylor is more of a power pitcher, and really has developed a lot over the fall, picking up speed and accuracy on her pitches. Liz will add solid depth to our pitching staff."
Johnson will also remain as an option from the pitcher's spot in addition to her time at second base.
The NAIA is revising the national tournament this season, with 40 teams making the championships instead of the previous 32. This will allow 10 teams to host regionals, with one squad from each group of four advancing to the final group of 10.
AUM will look to build on the progress it made both at the conference and national levels.
"We have two main goals this season," Steiner-Wilcoxson said. "We want to win our conference. We want to establish ourselves as a threat in our conference, which will be very tough. And we also want to finish high enough this year where we could possibly host a regional.
"We'll be playing a lot of ranked teams," she continued. "And we'll be playing some of them for four games. So we really have to bring it every game. We can't slack off for one inning, one out, one at-bat. We have to make the most of every pitch. I think it will be a really exciting season."
The Warhawks begin their 2013 campaign with a home doubleheader against Thomas University this Sunday. Game one begins at 1 p.m. at the AUM Softball Complex.