CONWAY — Coastal Carolina softball coach Kelley Green said she was a bit surprised when she saw the Big South preseason coaches poll that was released early last week.
For the second straight season, the Chanticleers were picked as the conference favorites. And after winning the Big South regular-season championship last year while bringing a lot of talent back, well, that makes sense.
Nonetheless, Green said she feels her team has as much to prove as ever this spring as it opens its season Saturday evening at home against College of Charleston.
“We actually weren’t expecting it by any means because we didn’t win the [conference] tournament, but it’s certainly nice the other schools in the conference think so highly of us,” Green said. “To us, we’re not approaching the season like we have a target on our back. We’re approaching the season like we have a lot to prove because we didn’t get it done last year. We’re on a little bit of a mission this year.”
For all its success last year, including 37 total wins and a 19-5 Big South record that stands as the most league victories in program history, the Chants did not earn their way into the NCAA tournament, falling in the conference tournament to Winthrop.
After ending a six-year wait by returning to the NCAA tournament in 2012, the goal for the program is explicit at this point.
“We really are just on a mission,” Green reiterated.
And the Chants are equipped with considerable veteran talent, including junior Kiana Quolas – the reigning Big South Pitcher of the Year – who went 22-10 with a 1.94 earned-run average and 151 strikeouts in 206 innings last season. She’ll get the ball Saturday in the season opener.
Senior Ashley Bagwell (12-8, 3.15 ERA) returns as the team’s No. 2 pitcher.
And the Chants bring back eight starting position players from last year.
Two-time All-Big South first-teamer Kory Hayden, Coastal’s junior third baseman, leads that list after hitting 15 home runs in each of her first two seasons. She is just 15 away from breaking the program’s career record.
Sophomore catcher Morgan Noad (15 hom runs last year) and sophomore outfielder Bri Chiusano (.330 batting average, team-high 62 hits, 47 runs and 29-for-29 on stolen bases) are also among the proven hitters anchoring the lineup.
“I think we’re really a balanced team,” Green said. “I thought that last year too. We continue to be very balanced. We have a very good pitching staff, a very good defense. Our offense, I thought, was a little down last year. … We had a couple players who didn’t have the best season last year, but with a couple newcomers and the returners getting back on track and having better seasons, we should have one of the better offenses in the country. But you just don’t know until you play the games.”
The other thing that has Green excited is that the team’s home games will actually be on campus this year after having to play on a high school field last year to accommodate construction to the program’s new stadium. The project is far from done, but the field and dugouts are ready, and so the Chants will play their first true home game on campus in 21 months on Saturday.
“It’s great to be at home. The team is really excited not to have to travel to Carolina Forest [High School] and play over there,” Green said. “It’s not like we get thousands of fans at our game right now, but just to have more fans and the students who walk by and professors, the stands will be more full than they were at Carolina Forest. …
“And just to be playing in this kind of facility, our field alone – just the playing surface – is the best in the country. The sense of pride you have playing at home just adds to that home field advantage.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318, or follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/RyanYoungTSN.