By Russell Moore
The Cullman Times
Wallace State’s third-ranked softball team began its season season Friday in Marianna, Fla., once again considered a legitimate national championship contender.
Wallace State, which finished third at the NJCAA Division I National Championship last season, has two sophomores ready to carry the load on the mound this season and catcher Paige Rowland, infielder Victoria Frith and outfielder Katie Gentle returning to the starting lineup.
“Our sophomore pitchers are ready to show what they’ve got. It’s going to be a strong 1-2 punch between BreeAnna Blevins and Lindsey DeFee,” said Wallace State coach Jayne Clem, a 10-time ACCC coach of the year. “Offensively, we have a chance to have one of our better hitting teams. We have power throughout the entire lineup.”
The Lady Lions put together another stellar campaign in 2012, finishing 62-12 and winning the program’s fifth state championship in six seasons and seventh overall. Wallace State rallied to win last season’s state title, winning five games in a row from the loser’s bracket.
Two weeks later, the Lady Lions encountered a similar situation at the national tournament. They lost their second game in St. George, Utah, but won four straight before being eliminated in the semis, losing in extra innings to eventual champ Chattanooga (Tenn.) State.
Wallace State, the 2008 national champs and 2009 and 2010 NJCAA runner-up, fell one win shy of playing for the national championship for the fourth time in five years.
“We had good sophomore leadership last season after losing to Faulkner State in the state tournament. It was definitely a wake-up call. It helped the team realize we get each team’s best shot when we hit the field,” Clem said. “Our sophomores this season understand how good it was for them to experience the things we did last year. They are ready to win it all this season. We plan on playing in the national championship game instead of sitting and watching it.”
Blevins and DeFee are in line to become Wallace State’s next dominant pitchers, continuing a string that has recently included NJCAA All-Americans Heather Parker and Kelsey Dennis.
Blevins, a former All-State performer at Alexandria High, was an important piece to last year’s rotation, finishing 15-1 with a 1.43 ERA in 21 games. She recorded 93 strikeouts and tossed eight complete games.
DeFee, a Eufaula native, made seven starts and went 5-2 with a 2.79 ERA as a freshman, throwing three complete games.
“BreeAnna pitched in the nationals and state tournament for us, so she gained that valuable experience, and Lindsey was a state tournament pitcher in high school every year. They’re two totally different pitchers, but each knows how to step up in pressure situations,” Clem said.
Rowland returns at catcher and will provide a lift in the middle of Wallace State’s order. The 5-9 sophomore was an All-Tournament selection last season at both the state and national tournaments and an All-ACCC/Region 22 First-Team selection after hitting .312 with a team-high 13 homers and 36 RBIs.
“Paige Rowland will be a major factor again defensively and offensively. She’s going to be in charge of leading the pitchers where they need to go and be a big force at the plate,” Clem said.
Frith, a second-team All-Region player, returns in the middle of the diamond after stealing 19 bases and collecting 18 RBIs last season, while Gentle is back in the outfield after hitting .342 with six homers, 39 RBIs and 17 stolen bases.
Clem believes freshmen Kori Benson and Madeline Lee will contribute significantly to the lineup in addition to sophomore infielder Brittany Gillison. Benson was named an AHSAA Super Team selection among all classifications last season after setting single-season school records at Oak Grove with 21 homers and 68 RBIs.
All of Wallace State’s games in February are on the road and loaded with matchups against other national championship contenders, including defending champion Chattanooga (Tenn.) State, second-ranked Blinn (Texas) College, No. 10 Darton (Ga.) College and No. 18 Iowa Western.
Wallace State will host its annual JUCO tournament at Cullman’s Heritage Park on March 1-2 and welcome Indian Hills (Ill.) Community College for its home opener on March 5.
“We’re going to get a gauge early on to see what we need to work on. We seem to see most of these teams again at the national tournament, so it especially gives the freshmen a chance to see what this level is about,” said Clem, who enters her 14th season with a 662-165 career record. “We’re going to have our work cut out for us all season long.”