It's a new year and a new attitude for the USC Aiken softball team.
After posting a 31-29 record last year and going 5-15 in the Peach Belt Conference, coach Jerry Snyder is looking for better things this season. The Lady Pacers open their home schedule at 1 p.m. today against Columbia Union College.
The Lady Pacers are predicted to finish ninth ahead of border rival Augusta State. This year, though, Snyder brings eight new faces to the table.
"We're looking good and we're ready to play," said Snyder, who enters his 13th season as Lady Pacers head coach. "We've come together quicker than I anticipated, and that's due to recruiting five junior college transfers."
Among those are second baseman Sarah Estrada and outfielder Amber Coates, both transfers from Daytona Beach (Fla.) Community College.
Coates hit .285 with 93 hits in 326 plate appearances. She had 120 putouts in the outfield.
Elyse Maviglia rounds out the transfers from Daytona Beach CC. Midland Valley product Shawna Clark also joins the newly revamped Lady Pacers pitching staff, along with Amy Fox, of Bridgewater, Va. The twin-sister combination of Autumn and Amber Dunn has come from Manatee (Fla.) Junior College.
Snyder lost his two pitchers from last season - Julie Green, who graduated, and Crystal Dunkle, who returned to Ohio.
"We didn't have to rebuild; we just reloaded," Snyder said. "I think we reloaded with a higher-caliber weapon with the pitchers we have. We are fortunate because the pitching staff will be the No. 1 improvement, and it will help us improve in the conference."
Peach Belt Conference freshman of the year and All-PBC Jami Cornwell returns after hitting .380 with three home runs and posting 22 RBI last season. Cornwell, who is playing basketball, will have to help fill the void left by All-PBC Sara Donnelly (12 doubles, .502 slugging, 47 stolen bases) and Missy Reynolds when she returns at the beginning of March.
Snyder also will rely on senior leadership from Bridgette Quimpo and Allison Sipes.
"They are probably the best set of captains as far as leadership that I've had," Snyder said. "Both of them have total respect from their teammates and will be a big part of our success depending on how far they can lead us."
Third-year Augusta State coach Melissa Mullins hopes to turn around last year's record of 15-37, which included an eight-game losing streak to end the season. Twelve of those losses were by one run, and 24 losses were by three runs or fewer.
"We had a lot of one-run games where now with the freshmen and sophomores stepping up, we'll be able push those runs across like we did in the fall," Mullins said.
Ten of the Lady Jaguars are underclassmen. Among those returning are sophomore second baseman Jenny Davis, who led the team with a .345 batting average and ended last season with a 20-game hitting streak. She also led the team in runs scored (30), hits (59), doubles (12), triples (2), total bases (75), stolen bases (20), slugging percentage (.439) and on-base percentage (.395).
Also returning is shortstop Katrina Leverett, who had a team-high 26 runs batted in and two homers. Third baseman Pam Vinson had two homers last year with 14 RBI.
Mullins said he expects newcomers Kelly Harbour and Jessica Lawhon to step in immediately. The 6-foot freshman Harbour will start at first base, while the speedy junior college transfer Lawhon will play in the outfield.
Mullins says she is excited about the upcoming season, which starts at 2 p.m. Tuesday at home against West Georgia, because her team went 5-1 in the fall exhibition season - including a pair of wins over USC Aiken. The Lady Jaguars batted .385 while her starters hit .500.
Ace pitcher Jessica Patterson was 5-20 last season with a 2.65 earned run average. But the sophomore played with a shoulder injury and had surgery in the off-season.
"She'll be strong, and that'll be a big plus, having her back," Mullins said.
Six of the 16 Lady Jaguars are local products. Butler High School (Ashlee Bell and Stephanie Miller) and Greenbrier (Laura Paulos and Leverett) each are represented along with Harlem (Vinson) and Westside (Bethany O'Brien).
Reach Miguelangelo Hernandez at (706) 823-3304.
Reach Chris Gay at (706) 868-1222.