UT Martin Softball to lean on veteran lineup in 2023 championship pursuit

 UT Martin Softball to lean on veteran lineup in 2023 championship pursuit

Tabbed as the OVC preseason favorites for the first time in program history, there are lofty expectations for the UT Martin softball team heading into the 2023 season.

UT Martin was tabbed to win the league outright for the first time in program history after earning 11 of 18 first place votes and narrowly beating out Southeast Missouri by four points for the top spot in the annual OVC Predicted Order of Finish. Those expectations are merited after the program was in the championship conversation all last season while a new-look OVC leaves the door open for a new program to climb to the top of the ladder.

The Skyhawks have progressively taken the next step in each year of the Brian Dunn Era. While his first season was cut short after posting a 12-10 record due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the squad posted a 27-19 record while going 16-15 in conference play in 2021. UT Martin took another step forward in year three in which the program went 34-19 with a 17-8 record in league play in 2022 – finishing third in the OVC standings. Over the course of three seasons, Dunn has led the Skyhawks to a 73-48 overall record (60.3 winning percentage).

“The OVC season is always challenging, and we are excited about being chosen as the preseason favorites for 2023,” Dunn said. “I believe that’s a testament to the type of players and assistant coaches we have assembled over the past seasons. After finishing so close in 2022, we are all excited about the opportunities that this coming season offers and are ready to leave it all on the field in our pursuit of an OVC title here in 2023.”

“I believe our greatest strengths will include team chemistry, a lineup that can hit 1 through 9, a deep pitching staff and a solid defense,” Dunn continued. “We are carrying a smaller roster by purpose but have several utility players off the bench with strong bats and gloves for depth.”

UT Martin is looking to build off last year’s campaign which saw the squad win 17 conference games – ranking as the most wins against conference foes since the 2012 campaign. On top of that, the Skyhawks posted 5.79 runs per game, 8.28 hits per game and had 278 RBIs which each ranked second in program single-season history. The squad also led the OVC in batting average (.305), runs (307), hits (439), RBIs (278) and fielding percentage (.970).

Headlining that potent offensive attack is the return of three All-OVC honorees from last season. Senior infielder Shyanne Sheffield earned All-OVC first team honors last season after ranking amongst league leaders while ranking second in the league in batting average (.486, second) and on-base percentage (.531, second) during conference play but suffered a preseason injury which will put her 2023 season in jeopardy. Meanwhile, Preseason OVC Player to Watch Kallie Pickens enters her final season as a fifth-year starter for the Skyhawks. The third baseman posted a .329 batting average with 33 runs scored, 16 doubles, two triples, five home runs and 39 RBIs last season on her way to All-OVC second team honors.

Junior Kaci Fuller is a two-time All-OVC honoree in her first two seasons hitting near the top of the Skyhawk lineup. Fuller posted a .388 batting average with 34 runs scored, 64 hits, six doubles, two triples, three home runs and 21 RBIs last season. Also earning postseason honors last season was utility player Avry Blume who earned All-Newcomer honors after starting at four different positions and boasting a .281 average with seven doubles, four home runs and 29 RBIs in her debut season.

In the power department, the Skyhawks welcome back graduate infielder Kaitlyn Kelley which features 26 career home runs on her résumé. Kelley posted a .341 batting average with seven doubles, seven home runs and 42 RBIs last season after setting a new program single-season record with 17 home runs in 2021. The squad also features fellow boppers Katie Dreiling and Anna Hazlewood which bring plenty of Division I experience after joining the Skyhawks as transfers prior to the 2022 season. Dreiling posted a .282 batting average with eight doubles, eight home runs and 37 RBIs debut season while Hazlewood was hitting .271 with three doubles, two home runs and 15 RBIs before suffering a season-ending injury in the first league series.

Statistically speaking, the Skyhawks have some of the best individuals in program history currently on the 2023 roster. Fuller currently ranks as the program’s all-time leader in batting average with a career .370 mark while Sheffield ranks second (.359) and Kelley (.339) sits in sixth. Kelley also ranks as the program’s all-time leader in slugging percentage (.604) while trailing the all-time home run mark by 14.

With a squad returning eight starters from last year’s squad, another key cog in the wheel is catcher Maddi Long. The junior has recorded 95 starts over the course of 105 games played in her Skyhawk career while tallying 13 doubles, seven home runs and 38 RBIs in three years. Junior outfielder Anna Blanton has also played an important role as the team’s first pinch runner with three stolen bases and 27 career runs scored.

“We are excited about the depth of our experienced athletes including Kallie, KK, Kaci, Avry, Katie, Maddi and the return of Anna Hazlewood from injury,” Dunn said. “Our offense has the potential to be very explosive with a good amount of gap power 1-9 but also possesses powerful hitters who can take their walks and get on base. These players know what it means to be a part of some explosive offensives over the past two seasons. They should be able to help lead the newcomers to success.”

While the offensive attack is primed for another big season, UT Martin is looking to replenish a pitching staff which saw three seniors graduate after last season. The Skyhawks will call upon a pair of returners to increase their workload in the circle with Dreiling and Emily Brown looking to play a part in filling the void left by graduation. Dreiling pitched primarily out of relief last season, appearing in 22 games out of the bullpen, while boasting a school-record four saves and a 3.13 ERA in 38.0 innings of work. Brown notched a 2-1 record with a 3.44 ERA in 18.1 innings of work – including a pair of complete games.

While the team veterans will carry a heavy load, the Skyhawks are also looking for some key newcomers to fill voids – especially in the pitching circle. Juniors Kiersten Nixon and Brooklynn Linneman will be called on to provide an immediate impact for the squad. Nixon is expected to help the Skyhawks on both sides of the ball after an impressive career at the JUCO level where she was named Region 16 Utility Player of the Year at Jefferson College. Nixon posted a .503 batting average with 10 doubles, 15 home runs and 44 RBIs last season in the batter’s box while hurling a 17-5 record with a 2.26 ERA in 145.1 innings of work in the circle. Meanwhile, Linneman joins the Skyhawks after spending two seasons at FIU where she posted 13 wins and logged 188.1 innings in the past two years.

“The depth of our staff will allow for opportunities for our pitchers to get more balanced innings early and see which arms set themselves apart for conference,” Dunn said. “It’s a good mix of experience and youth as far as D1 innings pitched.”

Other newcomers looking to leave their mark are the Brown twins which are looking for their first taste of Division I softball after strong prep careers at Lexington High School. Kennedy Brown and Kyrsten Brown helped their squads to a state championship and a pair of runner-up finishes in their prep career on the middle infield. Kennedy posted a .525 batting average with 23 RBIs as a senior while her sister Kyrsten added a little added power with a .377 average, 14 doubles, seven triples, 11 home runs and 37 RBIs. The team will also welcome freshman pitcher Ashtyn Green, junior catcher Annie Gutierrez and freshman utility player Jordyn Hustey to the squad.

“We are excited about all of our newcomers, but Kiersten and Brooklynn should both be battling for time in the circle and at the plate while the Brown twins (Kyrsten and Kennedy) should see significant time on the field,” Dunn notes.

The Skyhawks will have a loaded schedule which features 50 contests including three matchups against teams which qualified for last season’s NCAA Tournament. UT Martin will travel to eight state including Alabama, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee while competing against 14 different conferences before opening the team’s 24-game OVC schedule.

Pitchers: Katie Dreiling, Brooklynn Linneman, Kiersten Nixon, Emily Brown, Ashtyn Green, Jordyn Hustey

Catchers: Maddi Long, Avry Blume, Annie Gutierrez

Infielders: Kallie Pickens, Shyanne Sheffield, Kaitlyn Kelley, Anna Hazlewood, Katie Dreiling, Kennedy Brown, Kyrsten Brown, Jordyn Hustey

Outfielders: Kaci Fuller, Avry Blume, Kiersten Nixon, Anna Blanton, Kennedy Brown