SALISBURY, Md. – The No. 2 Salisbury University softball team heads into the 2016 season with a senior-loaded squad that is hoping to get back to the National Championship and collect the top prize for the first time in program history.
Five of the six seniors have been with the program for all four years, two of which are four-year starters, having already made their mark on the program, and looking to finish on a high note.
"They have had a great impact on our program, and I look forward to watching them play the game they love," Head Coach Margie Knight said. "This group, they just keep battling and they find a way to get better. I think what's really great is that they are still receptive to new information."
Annah Brittingham, one of the six Salisbury seniors, leads the pitching staff into the new season, with the most returning experience. Brittingham pitched in 18 games, starting 14 of them and posting a 9-2 record with an ERA of 1.94 in 2015.
"She's got the most experience and she's got some great movement," Knight said.
Brittingham will also be a threat at the plate, where she developed into one of the team's top hitters, batting .400 with five home runs and driving in 36 runs.
A quick look at the 2016 roster would appear the pitching burden will fall on just Brittingham and a pair of incoming freshmen, but a pair of returners, who played primarily in the field, will be looking to time in the circle, as well.
Sophomores Annie Pietanza and LeAnne Collins each saw limited pitching time last year, with Pietanza throwing just 1 1/3 innings, while Collins only saw time in practice, but the pair is expected to see a more active role in 2016.
"They will both be able to come in and give us some really quality innings – maybe not a whole game – but they will be effective relievers," Knight said.
Four-of-five infield starters return to the two-time defending top defensive team in Division III softball, which held a .978 fielding percentage last year.
"Those two, they're just terrific with great arms, super quick gloves, and even if they're not the fastest players, I think their sense for the ball is just outstanding," Knight said. "Now you add Molly Simpson into that mix and you've got the other person on the right side that does the same thing."
Dorsey, batting primarily in the leadoff spot in 2015, hit a team-best .431 with nine home runs and 20 total extra-base hits while scoring 56 runs. She will be near the top of the lineup again.
Sebbane and Simpson combined for 10 home runs last year, and Sebbane, who hit near the top of the lineup last year, has been one of the hardest players to strike out in the nation over the past two years.
"I think not only does she not strikeout very often, but she wears pitchers out," Knight said. "She will get those seven-to-12 pitch at-bats, which gives the next batter and everybody in the dugout a chance to see that pitcher throw and throw and throw."
Senior Paige Knussman moved into the field last year, at first base, following a season as the designated player, and this year, she moves behind the plate, as the starting catcher, a position at which she has seen very limited game action in college, but did play in high school.
It's been a learning experience mentally and physically to leave the catching responsibilities behind when she gets to the plate.
"I do think in the fall, it may have affected her batting, because she had so much to do that was new to her," Knight said. "But I have emphasized that she gets to see so many pitches, how great is this going to be for her hitting. She'll be able to recognize spins so much quicker than others. And I think looking at it that way instead of being overwhelmed has really helped her."
Knussman was one of the top hitters in the nation last year, with a .416 batting average and a team-leading 10 home runs, she will be back in the middle of the lineup.
Freshmen Kaylee Hahn and Megan Buonpane will work with the pitching staff as well and may see some game time at catcher, while Buonpone's offensive prowess has her in the mix for a pinch hitting role.
Rachel Spadin is the senior anchoring the play in the outfield, where she will patrol center field again. Her speed and ability to read the ball off the bat allow her to run down almost anything hit in the air, and with a powerful arm and strong leadership, she is the full package in center.
"She's a wonderful leader in the outfield, directing traffic for the entire team," Knight said. "She is a converted second basemen and we put her in the outfield and she is just a natural. I don't say that lightly, I think when you find great outfielders, they are really hard to come by, and she is a great outfielder."
Collins, when not pitching will move to right field this year, spending most of 2015 in left field. A staple near the top of the lineup last season, where she hit .364 and scored 29 runs, she is expected to be one of the first bats to face opposing pitchers.
Juniors Caitlin Lake and Summer Paglianete, who saw action in a combined 56 games last year were key reserves, are the front runners for the left field position. Lake played in 37 games, scoring 15 runs and Paglianete scored seven runs in 19 apperances.
Freshman Courtney Tate has the type of bat that may get her into the field, as her batting practice prowess has been known to shut down other drills so her teammates can watch her hit.
The Sea Gulls have always faced a stiff test in both Capital Athletic Conference and non-conference opponents, and 2016 will be no different, with the strong battles beginning in the opener on Saturday, February 20 in a doubleheader against No. 14 Virginia Wesleyan College at the SU Softball Field.
The following weekend, on the second day of the Grand Slam Tournament in North Carolina, Salisbury will take on No. 9 Rowan University and No. 18 Emory University.
Salisbury begins play in the CAC on March 26 at No. 12 Christopher Newport University, while playing the team's first home conference games on April 9, hosting York College of Pennsylvania. The goal is to claim the top seed in the league in order to host the CAC tournament on April 21-23.
The Sea Gulls will be in search of success in the NCAA regional and super regional in order to make a fourth-consecutive trip to the NCAA championship in May.