After the longest offseason in program history, the UT Martin softball team is itching with excitement to open the 2021 season under second year head coach Brian Dunn in the program’s 36th season.
The Skyhawks have been looking forward to the start of the 2021 campaign for nearly 11 months since the 2020 season was abruptly halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When the Skyhawks hit the field for the season opener, the team will end a 347-day hiatus since last playing an opponent on March 2, 2020.
“We are all just so excited to play because we have not been able to play anyone since last March,” Dunn said. “Our kids are so over intersquads. You know, we usually get to play other teams in the fall but we weren’t able to do that this year. It was nice to play so many intersquads to see live-speed play and really compete, but the energy is a little different when it is someone other than your teammate.”
While the loss of games have been discouraging for players and staff alike around the country – regardless of sport – teams have had to focus on each other to get through this difficult offseason filled with uncertainty in various forms.
“Our kids have been great,” Dunn said. “They have been super adaptable, have gotten great grades and really showed up to work. We know this has been a tough year. Everyone wants to talk about COVID and the serious health aspect which we are facing, but we have also tried to focus on our players’ mental health. It is so important to be there for each other and make an effort to emphasize the positives in each other. So many times we get caught up in the negatives of what a player is doing wrong, that we forget to complement each other, but we try to take time every day during practice to go around the circle and give someone a complement. It can be the little things that make a difference.”
“I think our culture is good,” Dunn continued. “Our new kids have really bought into what we are trying to do. We have set some standards of who we try to be, especially team over self. Our upperclassmen have done a great job of making our freshmen feel like they are wanted here and are valued. I cannot get over how much they are good kids and good students.”
Before the team had it’s season shutdown last year, the Skyhawks had posted a 12-10 season and shown lots of promise with a relatively youthful roster featuring just two seniors in Aalia Bivens and Hannah Ridolfi. UT Martin boasted five players which had batting averages over .300 while the pitching staff combined to record a 2.33 ERA in 150 innings of work. Now with the bulk of the squad returning with an extended year of eligibility in their pocket, there is work to be done.
UT Martin is scheduled to play a full set of 56 games in 2021 – including 34 OVC contests after the league approved a schedule adjustment to provide flexibility and additional games while limiting travel. Unlike previous seasons, the conference schedule will now feature teams playing a pair of midweek doubleheaders with their travel partner (one doubleheader on each campus) and a three-game weekend series with the remainder of the league (10 total opponents), increasing the schedule from 22 to 34 games.
UT Martin will play in three non-conference tournaments, beginning with the Lady Demon Classic (Feb. 12-13) before also competing in the Black and Gold Tournament (Feb. 19-20) and Tennessee Invitational (Feb. 25-27). The Skyhawks will also tentatively square off against other non-conference foes Arkansas-Pine Bluff (March 9), Jackson State (March 16), Central Arkansas (March 24), Evansville (March 30), Memphis (March 6) and Ole Miss (April 21).
The Skyhawks will host six OVC rivals at Bettye Giles Field this season beginning with the league opener against Murray State (March 5-6) followed by Tennessee State (March 19-20), Eastern Kentucky (March 26-27), Morehead State (Apr. 16-17), Austin Peay (Apr. 30-May 1) and travel-partner Southeast Missouri (May 4). UT Martin will play its remaining conference opponents on the road including Jacksonville State (March 12-13), SIUE (Apr. 2), Eastern Illinois (Apr. 9-10), Belmont (Apr. 23-24), Southeast Missouri (Apr. 28) and Tennessee Tech (May 7-8).
The 2021 OVC Softball Championship will be held in Oxford, Ala. at Choccolocco Park from May 13-15. Due to challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, it was previously decided that the field size for the OVC Championship will be reduced to just four teams as a one-year measure only.
“When we look at the schedule, we just want to play,” Dunn said. “This is our second year here as a staff, but we are still waiting to get a taste of the conference and see how we stack up. The greatest strength of our team is that we do not have an easy out 1 through 9. It felt like last year, the bottom of our order wasn’t super solid. This year, I think it is solid all the way through. We have a lot of depth. Some of our freshmen are really good, we have some great upperclassmen and a solid mix of kids. I feel like we will be very competitive, but it is just a matter of playing games.”
The Skyhawks return three starters at the four infield positions headlined by Kaitlyn Kelley at first, Chelsey Gore at second and Kallie Pickens at third base. Kelley joined the team right before the season and fit right in, posting a .333 batting average with seven doubles, two home runs and 10 RBIs. Gore paced the team with a .403 batting average – including a 10-hit weekend at the North Texas Invitational. Pickens boasted a .261 average at the hot-corner with a double, a triple and six RBIs. A pair of freshmen – Macey Neal and Kaci Fuller – will battle for the starting job at shortstop.
UT Martin will also look to Emily Gilstrap, Bryleigh Carneal and Skyler Davis to provide depth on the infield.
Infielders: Bryleigh Carneal, Skyler Davis, Kaci Fuller, Emily Gilstrap, Chelsey Gore, Kaitlyn Kelley, Macey Neal, Kallie Pickens, Shyanne Sheffield
UT Martin returns all three starters in the outfield in former All-OVC honoree Paige Clark in left field, Shyanne Sheffield in center and Aalia Bivens in right field. Clark was recently named an OVC Player to Watch after boasting a .319 batting average with 16 runs, five doubles, one home run, 14 RBIs and eight stolen bases. Sheffield posted a .320 batting average with eight runs, one home run, 11 RBIs and six stolen bases. Bivens returns for her fifth season after boasting a .273 batting average, two doubles, two home runs and 13 RBIs.
The Skyhawks also feature Emily Alexander who started nine games last season, scoring nine runs and swiping five stolen bases. Freshmen Anna Blanton and Gracie Lusk will look for opportunities at the corner outfield positions.
Outfielders: Emily Alexander, Aalia Bivens, Anna Blanton, Paige Clark, Gracie Lusk, Shyanne Sheffield
The Skyhawks feature a pair of versatile catchers behind the plate in sophomore Kenna Garst and freshman Maddi Long. Garst started 12 games last season, posting a .212 batting average with one double and six RBIs. Long also earned 10 starts as a true freshman, boasting a .125 batting average.
“We have a situation that a lot of programs would love to have,” Dunn said. “Kenna is a lot more vocal and a spark. Maddi is very still and a good receiver. Pitchers love to throw to both because they are so different. Both have great arms and we are very fortunate to have to two quality catchers behind the plate.”
Catchers: Kenna Garst, Maddi Long
UT Martin returns its entire pitching staff from last season after a spectacular start. The Skyhawk staff combined to post a 2.33 ERA in 150 innings of work while limiting opponents to a .223 batting average. Sophomore Erin Gallagher led the team with a 6-4 record with a 2.65 ERA in 60.2 innings and 55 strikeouts. Senior Hannah Ridolfi went 4-2 with a 2.23 ERA in 53.1 innings while junior Seeley Layne was 2-4 with a 1.94 ERA in 36.0 innings.
The staff will get some reinforcements this season with the addition of sophomore Alexis Groet and freshman Emily Brown. Groet pitched 267 innings over her last two seasons in the JUCO ranks and struck out 380 batters en route to NJCAA All-America and Region 11 Pitcher of the Year honors. Brown posted a nice prep career of her own with 58 career victories.
“I like our pitching staff,” Dunn said. “When you look at what we brought back, we have a staff that had an ERA that sat in the mid-twos as a team while adding a quality JUCO pitcher and a young prep arm. I see us using more people in a game because it gives us more options and opportunities. Last year we kind of had to stay with people longer than we wanted to, now as soon as the game starts, someone will be in the pen ready to go.”
Pitchers: Emily Brown, Erin Gallagher, Alexis Groet, Seeley Layne, Hannah Ridolfi
UT Martin officially opens the season Friday at the Lady Demon Classic in Natchitoches, Louisiana. The Skyhawks will play Evansville at 1:00 before taking on host Northwestern State at 3:00.