By Jim Harwell
Webster’s New World Dictionary defines the word ‘gem’ this way: “a person held in great esteem; a person held to be a perfect example; a treasure; a person or thing likened to or prized.”
And when looking at the rosters of college softball teams in Middle Tennessee there is not a better word to describe the talented softball players and programs that have officially made Nashville a softball destination. In addition to the annual Music City Hits 18U/16 U tournaments, the largest college exposure tourney in the South, Nashville college softball is also setting the pace.
“The Hits Tournament” in Hendersonville every June features over 65 summer teams from around the nation, all converging for five days of nonstop softball action. This year will be the 7th annual tournament, which features some of the best high school players in the country.
And some of those stars go on to play for four teams right here in the Nashville area: Lipscomb, Trevecca, Belmont, MTSU and Cumberland. Their rosters show why Tennessee is a great place to build a team. Of the 65 players on the four rosters, 53% (36) are from Tennessee and 45% (29) are from Nashville.
Trevecca Lady Trojans
So far in 2011, it looks like the Lady Trojans are poised to continue their dominant play in the NAIA. They have made it to the Final Eight of the NAIA National Championships four times in the past five years. In addition, the Trojans have won five of the last six regular season TranSouth Conference titles. Trevecca began this season ranked No. 9 in the nation (NAIA coaches poll), the highest pre-season ranking in school history.
Coach Ben Tyree’s squad returns seven of nine starters from 2010. Of the 14 players on the roster, 11 are from the Nashville area. Tyree says he has assembled a group that plays as a team.
“We have quite a few outstanding athletes this year,” said Tyree. “But they work very hard as a team and also are outstanding students with character as well.”
The Trojans are led by a group of local upperclassmen. The senior class features four Midsouth players who all earned All-TranSouth honors last season.
Catcher Karli Rush from Mt. Juliet (Mt. Juliet High) is team captain and a leader on and off the field. So far this year, she is among the team leaders in virtually every statistical category and was recently named TranSouth Player of the Week. In 2010 she batted .333 with 35 RBIs while battling an injury.
“Karli is one of those players that come around once in awhile who has the desire to be the best, no matter what she is doing,” said Tyree. “She has been one of our captains for two years and definitely leads by example.”
Monica West (C, 3rd base) from Murfreesboro and Siegel High is a stalwart player. The power-hitting West is among the team leaders in RBI and at-bats. Last year, she batted .345 and led the TranSouth with 16 HRs. West played at Shorter University (Rome, Ga.) before Belmont.
Melinda Patterson from Camden, Tenn., is one of the best defensive players in the TranSouth and covers first base. Last year, she batted .321 and finished with a .983 fielding percentage.
Kelsey Lantrip (from Kimberly, Ala.) plays shortstop and last year was named 2010 TranSouth Newcomer of the Year. In 2010, she batted .325 with 11 HRs and 41 RBI.
The junior class is also talent-laden.
Two of the TranSouth’s top pitchers are Trojan juniors Lauren Baker from Hendersonville (Beech) and Riley Mashburn from Nashville (Father Ryan). Both were 20-game winners last year. Baker has already been named TranSouth Pitcher of the Week this year.
Junior Kari Mason is an infield starter and is among the team leaders in average, stolen bases and at-bats. Mason, from Springfield, played at Columbia State and East Robertson High before Trevecca.
Sophomore outfielder Breanna Zeis from Murfreesboro and Blackman High is one of the TranSouth’s and the NAIA’s top hitters. Last year, she led the Lady Trojans with 68 hits and a .368 batting average, including 13 doubles, 9 HRs and 42 RBI.
Lipscomb Lady Bisons
The Lady Bisons are coming off the best season in school history, including the Atlantic Sun Championship, 50 wins and a NCAA Regional Finals trip. They finished last year ranked 36th in the nation.
The program is now nationally-known and attracting players from all over the country. The 2011 roster has players from seven states, including Texas, California and Washington. Head Coach Kristin Ryman (Lipscomb ’03), now in her fifth year at the helm, is the catalyst.
“Finishing in the mid-to-upper 30s in almost every poll shows what this program is capable of,” Ryman said. “I think people are starting to pay more attention to us.”
The 2011 team is young, with five upper and 11 underclassmen, representing seven states. There are seven players from Tennessee.
Three starters who are pacing the Bisons are from the Nashville area. Juniors Carolina Mason and Courtney Billington are from Mt. Juliet, and Sophomore Breanna Thurman is from Columbia. All three are among Lipscomb’s top hitters. Mason (Mt. Juliet High) and Billington (Wilson Central) are team leaders and play primarily outfield. Billington was a 1st Team All-Conference selection last year and won the A-Sun batting title with a .373 BA.
Thurman, an outfielder, is among the team leaders in numerous categories, including average, on-base percentage, walks and stolen bases.
The Bisons have faced a brutal preseason schedule, including participating in four prestigious preseason tournaments in Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina, as well as the annual Lady Bison Classic at Lipscomb. The Bisons have fared very well against the top-level D-1 competition.
And the Bisons are having fun in the process. Third-year veteran Vanessa Medina, from Bakersfield, Calif., gives highlights of the season in her weekly blog on LipscombSports.com. Recently, she wrote about teammate Kristen Sturdivant’s original rap song that has brought some high-energy fun and motivation to the squad.
Belmont Lady Bruins
Belmont has high hopes for 2011 and faces a very tough schedule, including the tough Atlantic Sun Conference. The squad has 7 Nashville area players on the 16-person roster. Coach Chris Kuhlmeyer is in his third season at the helm.
“We have a veteran ball club and have been through many battles in the Atlantic Sun,” said Kuhlmeyer. “With the pre-season schedule we put together, we hope that we will continue to head towards that goal of consistency and be ready to compete for a spot in the Atlantic Sun tournament.”
The Bruins are led by seniors Julie Harmon from Brentwood, Kelly Cash (Ohio) and Ashley Smith (Alabama).
Harmon is a four-year starter and one of the Bruins’ top pitchers. In 2010, she earned Atlantic Sun All-Academic honors. Julie prepped at Brentwood High for Coach Jamie Chiariello. Cash and Smith are both starters as well and play a variety of positions. Cash was third on the team last year with a .243 BA.
The junior leaders on the team include two Nashville area standout players- Cassie Bollin from Madison and Hannah Irwin from Mt. Juliet. Bollin, who went to Hume-Fogg High, is a two-year starter and led the team last year with a .278 BA and nine stolen bases. She plays infield.
Irwin, from Mt Juliet (Mt. Juliet High), is also a two-year starter and plays catcher and 3rd base. The daughter of a Belmont graduate, Irwin is one of eight siblings-four sisters and three brothers.
After a very challenging preseason schedule, including the War Eagle and Georgia Tech Classics, the Lady Bruins will face a very tough A-Sun regular season schedule.
MTSU Lady Blue Raiders
MTSU has solid senior leadership and looks to battle in the tough Sun Belt Conference under Coach Sue Nevar. The Blue Raiders have players from eight different states, with seven players from the Midstate.
The Lady Blue Raiders have also faced a tough preseason schedule and have picked up solid wins over Murray State (twice), Georgia Southern and Marshall, among others. They also went 2-2 at the War Eagle Classic in Auburn, including a narrow, 6-5 loss in a rematch with Georgia Southern.
The Raiders are led by seniors Kandra Singleton, Corrie Abel, Kelsey Dortch and Brittney Banania.
Singleton is a three-year letterman and 2nd baseman from Clarkville Northwest High.
Abel, from Illinois, is one of the Sun Belt’s best hitters and led the team last year with a .347 BA and 60 hits. She is a three-year starting outfielder. As a sophomore, she was a Second Team All-Sun Belt selection and batted .381.
Dortch, from Milan, Tenn., starts in CF and provides offensive power. She had 7 doubles and 4 HRs last year. Banania is a four-year starter at SS and one of the Raiders leading hitters. She is from San Pedro, Calif.
Junior catcher Natalie Ysias from Riverside, Calif., is a key player. Ysais led the team last year in HRs, RBI and slugging percentage.
Jessi Couch from Lebanon and Friendship Christian provides solid play at catcher as well.
Freshman Kayla Toney from Hendersonville and Beech High is already an impact player. Toney is one of the Raiders’ leading hitters so far this year and plays infield. She was a consensus All-State selection last year for Beech.
In both college and high school softball action in Nashville and Middle Tennessee, you won’t have to go far to see Tennessee’s diamond gems.