CASTLETON, Vt. – The Castleton softball team begins its North Atlantic Conference title defense on Thursday as the squad opens its season with a pair of non-conference contests in Fort Myers, Fla. at the Gene Cusic Classic.
Castleton comes into 2017 with a positive outlook after claiming the NAC title a year ago, but Head Coach Eric Ramey knows that the Spartans have a lot of work to do before they think forward to May. "For the new players, it is not about last year," said Ramey. "Yes, our returners certainly want to defend their championship, but this team is pursuing their own identity and championship."
Newcomers will play a key role in the makeup of the 2017 team, as Castleton returns just six players from last season's championship squad, while brining in 10 freshmen. The Spartans look to veteran returners Kayla Wood and Taylor Paquette in the circle, while the bats and gloves of Timi Carone, Tori Swaine and Sami Carlo will be crucial to the Spartans' success.
"Kayla and Taylor, in the circle, are without question our key pieces. Both have been incredible in conference play for two seasons," said Ramey of his pitching staff. "Timi is dynamic offensively out of the leadoff spot, Tori is rock solid for us on both sides of the ball, and McKinlie Carpenter is much improved as a leader behind the plate for us. Sami is our quarterback in the middle of our defense, and we have added multiple talented first year players including Sara Baker, Karli Theberge and Kayley Fountain that we believe will solidify our defense, and help replace the offensive punch that graduated last spring."
Wood was a First Team All-Conference honoree for Castleton a season ago, posting a 9-4 record with three saves in nearly 90 innings of work. She was unflappable in conference play, going 6-1 with one save and 62 strikeouts in 38.2 innings of work. Wood allowed just two earned runs in conference play, good for a 0.54 earned run average while tossing her first career no-hitter against Thomas. Overall, Wood had an ERA of just 1.33, and struck out a career-high 119 batters. Paquette was just as valuable to the Spartans in the circle, registering an ERA of 1.63 in NAC action in 2016, striking out 25 batters in 30 innings of work. She tossed a career-high 74.1 innings overall in 2016, posting a 2.17 ERA along the way.
Carone joined Wood on the NAC First Team a season ago after batting leadoff and posting career-best numbers as a sophomore. She batted .333, and got on base at a .398 clip. Carone had 36 hits, six of which were for extra bases, while driving in 11 runs from the top of the lineup. Carone also played stellar defense in the outfield, posting a .951 fielding percentage. Carlo impressed out of the No. 9 spot in the lineup at second base a season ago, batting .274 with a .322 on-base percentage. Carlo will be a key piece of the defense up the middle, as she ranked second on the team in assists last season.
Swaine had a stellar rookie season, earning Rookie of the Week accolades four times as the starting third baseman. She finished the campaign with a .293 batting average and a .463 slugging percentage—the best slugging numbers of all returning players. She swatted a pair of home runs and drove in 13 runs while tying for the team lead with six doubles. Carpenter has proven her versatility for the Spartans, as she will take over catching duties while seeing time in the outfield this season. She had eight hits in limited action a season ago, and should only improve with consistent playing time in 2017.
The Spartans will look to young players to fill the void of the Class of 2016, with Baker, Theberge and Fountain projecting to get substantial innings. Baker jumps into the mix at shortstop in her rookie season, while Theberge will play first base and see action in the circle. Fountain will rotate around the various outfield positions, filling in as needed for Castleton. Other newcomers include outfielders Briley Blackbird, Serena Irmiere, Jordan Gouger, Abby Ferrara, and Hunter Buxton, as well as infielder Emilee Teague and catcher Dani Forand. Also returning for Castleton is Brooke Naylor, a member of the 2014 Spartan softball squad.
The Spartans are scheduled to leave for Florida on Wednesday, a trip that Ramey and the Spartans are excited for. "Florida is a great opportunity for us compete against teams from outside our region," he said. "We want to see how we handle situations, get our offense up to speed against some quality pitching and have a good time together in some warm weather."
Castleton will play Wilmington (OH) and Curry College on March 16, before taking on Centenary (N.J.) and Marian (WI) on March 17. The Spartans round out their three-day trip with UW-Superior and North Central (IL) on March 18.
Ramey has high hopes for his team, emphasizing that the squad needs to get better every day to be prepared for the NAC Tournament come May. After being chosen as the NAC preseason favorites last week, Ramey said that "preseason rankings mean nothing, but end of the season rankings do," and that "the backs of our shirts say 'WIN EVERY DAY', and if we can maintain that approach, we have a chance to be pretty good."