Last spring was a season of firsts for the Penn State Altoona softball program.
The Lady Lions won their first-ever Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference title, then went on to make their first appearance in the NCAA Division III Regional Tournament in Salem, Va.
With most of its core players returning from last season, Penn State Altoona is prepared to make another run at a conference championship this year.
"The quality of competition in the AMCC continues to improve every year, and we can never take anything for granted.
"We have 11 returners from our 2013 championship team, many of whom were regular starters and all of whom made important contributions to our success through the year, but that is no guarantee of the same success this year," said coach Fred Caldwell, who enters his fifth year at the helm of the program. "I believe that, between our returners and first-year players, we will have a very talented group. If they come together as a team and work as hard as they did last year, then we will be in the running again by playoff time."
The Lady Lions' top returning position player is junior first baseman Kelly Chambers, a two-time first team All-AMCC pick.
Chambers led the conference in home runs last season with eight and, in just two seasons, established a new school record for home runs hit in a career.
The former AMCC Newcomer of the Year led her team last year in several categories, including batting average (.381), slugging percentage (.699), on-base percentage (.445), and runs batted in (28). She was equally as solid in the field, where she committed just two errors and posted a fielding percentage of .992 at first base.
Senior second baseman Brittany Smith, a three-time all-conference selection, is another important bat in her team's lineup and anchors the squad's middle infield. Smith, another former Newcomer of the Year award recipient for the Lady Lions, batted .361 last season and collected the most hits on the team with 44. She is poised to set new school records in several categories this season.
A pair of juniors, outfielder Ala Miller and catcher/third baseman Lily Glunt, are two other key returners to Penn State Altoona's lineup.
Miller was a first team all-conference pick last year after batting .355 with eight extra base hits, and Glunt made third team All-AMCC with a .311 batting average while displaying consistently solid defense and game management behind the plate.
Sophomore utility player Clarissa Keller is also a returning position player who took home All-Conference honors at the end of last season, when she earned a spot on the third team as a freshman. Keller batted .352 and posted an on-base percentage of .398.
Rounding out the group of position players who return from last season are senior outfielder Lauren Bove and a trio of sophomores: shortstop Amanda Brennan, shortstop/outfielder Summer Feathers, an Altoona graduate, and middle infielder Gina Ricci.
Bove hit .322 last spring and ranked second on the team in total bases (48), runs scored (28), and steals (5). Brennan finished last season with 25 RBIs, the second-highest total on the team, while providing strong defense at short. Feathers hit .236 with five extra base hits and five steals while posting a perfect fielding percentage. Ricci batted .290 with 12 RBIs and stole five bases.
"Much like last year, we feel that hitting will be one of the strengths of this year's team," Caldwell said. "Several first-year players have also shown the power and consistency in the batting cages that they will need to be successful at the plate."
The returning position players should prove to be just as solid in the field. Penn State Altoona's strong defense was a big part of its AMCC championship run last spring, and Caldwell expects that to continue while adding even more flexibility to the roster.
"Early in the season, the defensive lineup will be very similar to what we had last year, but there are a number of first-year players who will earn playing time and challenge for starting positions during the season," he said. "Overall, the team will have a great deal of depth at most positions, which gives us the ability to change the lineup and rest players as needed."
Compared to the team's hitting and defense, the Lady Lions' pitching staff is a relative question mark heading into the season, considering the loss of starting pitcher Jackie Smith, who graduated at the conclusion of last spring. Junior Raychel DeArmitt should transition smoothly into the role of the team's No. 1 pitcher.
DeArmitt was a second team all-conference selection last season after ranking fifth in the AMCC in strikeouts with 101 and posting a team-best 2.07 earned run average. In 84 2/3 innings pitched, she limited opposing batters to a .205 average while tossing two complete game shutouts and compiling a 9-5 record.
"There's no doubt that Jackie was a big part of our success, and her contributions will be missed. Raychel really developed and made great strides as a pitcher last year, and she has continued to work hard in the offseason," Caldwell said. "Her velocity and control are ahead of where she was at this point last year, and I expect her to pick up right where she left off and to improve throughout the season."
Sophomore Cassondra Ross will be asked to step up her workload at pitcher this season. Last year, Ross went 4-1 with a 3.21 ERA and two complete games while throwing 24 innings.
"Cassondra gained valuable experience in the circle last year. Her control and movement have been excellent, and she will provide a great change of pace from Raychel's style," said Caldwell. "Freshman pitcher Kate Burge, a Philipsburg-Osceola graduate, comes in with a great deal of experience and success at the high school and travel team levels. She is a student of the game and will provide depth to the staff."