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Softball continues to aim higher coming off a historic season

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Softball continues to aim higher coming off a historic season

Kelsey Bryan, left, attempts to tag a runner at second base in a UNC Wilmington softball game.

Kelsey Bryan, left, attempts to tag a runner at second base in a UNC Wilmington softball game.

Courtesy of UNCW Athletic Communications

Kelsey Bryan, left, attempts to tag a runner at second base in a UNC Wilmington softball game.

Courtesy of UNCW Athletic Communications

Courtesy of UNCW Athletic Communications

Kelsey Bryan, left, attempts to tag a runner at second base in a UNC Wilmington softball game.

Collin Underwood, Staff Writer

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Coming off a record-breaking season, the UNC Wilmington softball team looks to build on its 2017 campaign and produce on the field in 2018.

2017 saw the Seahawks set a school record in wins (35) and go to the postseason as an at-large bid into the NISC Tournament. The Seahawks’ season ended one game short of a regional final, but there was still victory in the defeat.

“We’re competitive to the very last pitch. We were in every game down the stretch from the CAA Tournament to the [NISC],” said UNCW coach Kristy Norton. “Having our girls understand now that the postseason is the most competitive atmosphere that you can play in as a college athlete, we can compete for a CAA championship.”

Norton’s sentiment was echoed by her senior leaders.

“Earlier in the year we sat that goal,” said pitcher Sarah Davis, referring to advancing to the postseason again in 2018. “We sat the goals to have more wins than we did last year and to go farther in the tournament than we did last year. Each day we’re practicing harder, and already knowing what it’s like when we get there helps a lot.”

Davis is also stepping into a larger role in the pitching rotation following the graduation of former ace Peyton Jordan.

“I just want to be a good leader on the field,” she said. “I want to take over role where every time I’m on the mound I know my team has my back and they know that I’m going to get the strikeouts and groundballs we need to get out of innings.”

Davis’s presence off the field is also being felt as she has assumed a mentoring role to younger pitchers on the staff.

“The younger pitchers come to me more now and we talk about what our goals are for a game,” said Davis. “My other teammates are looking to me to get the wins and talk to me about what we have to do each day to get there.”

Norton feels confident in the staff behind Davis but says she hasn’t ironed out a clear rotation to use yet for the season.

“We’re definitely going to pitch by committee now behind Sarah,” said Norton. “Whatever is best on that gameday versus that scouting report that we have. We’re going to put the best pitcher on the mound at that time.”

The sixth-year head coach hinted at a bigger a role for junior Laurel Koontz behind Davis as her playing time increases towards the end of the season. The Seahawks will also lean on junior Haley Lenderman, who Norton says improves every year, and sophomore Rylee Pate, who is still getting her feet wet after joining the team during the spring semester last season.

Like Davis, senior infielder Kelsey Bryan is also assuming a larger role on and off the field, as the Seahawks look to replace three seniors from their lineup a year ago.

“I think I have to stay within myself and bring the others up to the level of play that we lost,” said Bryan. “The holes and second base and centerfield were filled quickly and the players coming indefinitely stepped up their level of play to fill those spots.”

Early in the 2018 campaign, the Seahawks will take on three “power five” conference teams in Auburn, North Carolina State, and North Carolina.

“It’s another learning opportunity that we get in being on the field with those big schools,” said Bryan.

Bryan added that seeing how those big schools work and how the Seahawks compete with them will be a gauge used throughout the season in preparation for postseason play.

Norton says that her team will approach those big games with the mentality that anybody can beat anybody in today’s softball landscape.

“I guess you could say we’ll try to approach it with the underdog mentality, that anything can happen,” she said. “I think that goes from team one all the way down to team 298. Anyone can beat anyone at any given time as long as you put in the effort, time and energy to prepare for your opponent.”

The annual preseason rankings for the CAA, as voted by the media, predicted the Seahawks to finish fourth behind reigning champions James Madison, Hofstra, and College of Charleston, respectively.

Norton believes that there are some qualities her team possesses that media wasn’t able to take into consideration.

“We have an incredibly athletic team,” she said. “The amount of speed we have the best we’ve had since I’ve been in Wilmington. Other teams won’t see that until we get on the field with them.”

The team’s mentality has changed their approach to game days.

“The thing that is most important about our group of girls this year is that they’ve learned to play the game with a schoolyard mentality,” said Norton. “It’s like a playground for them. Instead of having a certain script or a policy or guideline, they just react to the speed of the ball.”

The Seahawks open their season on Feb. 16 in Charlotte as participants in the Charlotte First Pitch Classic.

Staff Writer Collin Underwood can be found on Twitter @tweetnUnderWood. Any tips or suggestion should be forwarded via email to uncwseahawksports@gmail.com. For video updates from The Seahawk, subscribe to our YouTube channel.

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Softball continues to aim higher coming off a historic season