2017 Motlow Lady Bucks – Members of the 2017 Motlow Lady Bucks softball team, front row from left: Riley O’Neal, Sarah Wilson, Kathleen Sledge, Ashton Watkins, Taylor Mitchell and Breanna Owens. Back row from left; Miranda Cooksey, Caroline Abernethy, Chelbie Gannon, Ciera Dobbins, Jamaica Johnson, Taylor Honea and Renee Bolduc. [Photo by Jeff Reed Photography]
After compiling a winning season under first-year head coach Janice Morey last year, Motlow State’s softball program is on the rise. Sophomores Ashton Watkins, Caroline Abernethy and Riley O’Neal will be expected to lead the Lady Bucks when the 2017 campaign gets underway this weekend.
Motlow will open the season Jan. 27, when it travels to Clearwater, Fla., to begin three days of competition against some of the nation’s top JUCO softball programs. The highlight is Saturday morning at 11 a.m., when the Lady Bucks will play Central Florida, which finished last season ranked second in the nation.
The Lady Bucks’ home field on the Moore County campus is in the process of a significant facelift. The facility will feature new backstop netting and a brick backstop wall, a new scoreboard, and a new 20-foot tall ‘green monster’ leftfield wall. The first home game is March 3, with TCCAA rival Chattanooga State visiting for the first conference series of the season.
Watkins, Abernethy and O’Neal are three of six returning sophomores who are expected to play key roles for the Lady Bucks. All three, along with Taylor Mitchell, were starters last season and critical to Motlow’s 28-24 season under Morey, who was hired in November 2015 to take over a program that had only one winning season in the previous four years.
“We expect great leadership physically, mentally and emotionally, from our returning starters,” said Morey. “Conference play tends to be quite a dog fight every weekend, so our experienced players will need to teach our younger players what it takes to compete against a conference opponent for four games over two days.”
Morey will have five returning sophomores, two redshirt freshmen, a transfer and five true freshmen to fill out her roster this season. She originally signed seven freshmen and had seven returning sophomores, but four decided the rigors and challenges of playing college softball were too much and they chose to end their playing careers.
“Our numbers are a little low this year,” Morey continued. “But we expect that to pay off for our freshmen by the end of the season. The amount of extra repetitions they will get during practice and games should give them the confidence and understanding of what it takes to perform in this league by the time we get to the conference tournament at the end of the season.”
Watkins, a shortstop from Lewisburg, is the Lady Bucks’ top returning offensive producer. She hits for average and hits with power, batting .377 in 151 plate appearances last year and leading the team with seven home runs. In addition, she slammed 13 doubles, four triples and drove in 28 runs.
Abernethy, from Spring Hill, is the backbone of the outfield, holding down the centerfield position and was named all-conference in 2016. She hit .341 last year with six doubles, a triple and 19 runs batted in. As the leadoff hitter, she led the team in stolen bases with six and was only caught one time. Her plate discipline is excellent, striking out only 10 times last year in a team-high 182 at bats.
O’Neal, from Fayetteville, stepped into the catcher position last season after an injury to a classmate and performed outstanding. She batted .306 in 134 plate appearances with five doubles, three home runs and 31 runs batted in. She also had a great eye at the plate, walking 16 times while striking out only six, and proved herself in the clutch by hitting .500 with two home runs and nine runs batted in at the conference tournament.
Mitchell, also from Fayetteville, played in every game for the Lady Bucks last season, starting many of them in the outfield. She hit .218 with a double and five runs batted in. Motlow will need increased production from her this year.
Tullahoma’s Taylor Honea saw limited action last year and will be expected to contribute more during the coming season. Joining her will be a pair of redshirt freshmen, both of whom sat out last year due to injury. Both Kat Sledge, from Whitwell, and Jamaica Johnson, from Shelbyville, will have an opportunity to contribute.
Renee Bolduc is the transfer, coming to Motlow after spending her freshman season at Calhoun Community College in Alabama. Bolduc will have one season at Motlow and will be counted on to add quality depth in the infield.
Although Morey has not yet had a full recruiting cycle as head coach, she has brought in five quality freshmen who should get plenty of playing time. Motlow places a premium on recruiting student-athletes from its 11-county service area, and the five incoming freshmen fit that bill nicely.
Outfielder Chelbie Gannon is from Shelbyville, pitcher/infielder Breanna Owens is from Fayetteville, pitcher Sarah Wilson comes from Sparta, outfielder Miranda Cooksey is from Lewisburg, and catcher/infielder Ciera Dobbins comes from LaVergne after playing at Stewarts Creek High School.