As is often the case, the Chattanooga State softball team is getting the jump on all other area diamond teams this season by opening in a Florida tournament in January. But this time is very different.
When the Lady Tigers take the field for their season opener Friday evening in Clearwater, after leaving Chattanooga at 4 that morning, they will be doing so as the defending junior college national champions and with Blythe Golden making her debut as a head coach in the state where she grew up, starred at two colleges and worked as an assistant coach.
And she has a team with only a handful of contributors from the 2012 NJCAA Division I champions. One of those, Lacye Walker, still will play first base but will be pitching a lot this season.
The only other full-time regular back is outfielder Marina Wilkerson, while Beth Breeden also returns after being a starter at the beginning and end of the 2012 season and making the all-tournament team at the nationals in Utah. The Middle Tennessee State signee will play first when Walker pitches and work also as a designated batter and in a utility role.
Kristen Qualls also is in the Lady Tigers' outfield mix after providing some crucial big hits last spring, and the only other returner, infielder Makinley Fletcher, played a limited role.
Beyond that, Golden lost three pitchers to NCAA Division I schools after the fall semester -- including Janna Scheff, last year's No. 2 to national MVP and current LSU pitcher Ashley Czechner -- and one of the new pitchers, Layne Smith of Elkmont, Ala., has been in a walking boot since the fall and likely won't be available for a month.
Golden herself, and assistant coach Amanda Lindsey, a former pitcher she caught for two years at Stetson University, didn't arrive at Chattanooga State until after the fall exhibition season, when Beth Keylon-Randolph and assistant Steve Jaecks left the Lady Tigers for East Carolina University.
It's been a hectic three months for Golden, she admits, but she's eager to see her players in action in seven games this weekend, especially since the recent rainy weather has greatly limited their on-field time. Golden is even more delighted that these seven games will be followed by nearly four weeks before they play again -- at the junior college in Panama City, Fla., where she was a two-time All-American catcher and worked the past four years.
"I am very excited to have almost a month to work on defensive sets and offensive strategies and get a lot more live pitching for our pitchers and hitters," she said. "I think that month is going to really tell a lot about who we are.
"I'd like to say this weekend is just a filler to see where we are, but the competitive side of me means we're going to play to win. I'm going to put what I think is the best nine on the field and then make some adjustments, but especially Saturday when we play four games we'll get a lot of people some playing time."
The Lady Tigers got their own NCAA Division I transfer pitcher this season, 6-footer Haley Fagan from Tennessee. She's from Cornersville, Tenn., and had some injuries and redshirted last year with the Lady Vols. Joining her and left-hander Walker in this weekend's rotation is 5-10 freshman Shelby Willard from Central High.
Emily Dagnan from Sequatchie County is the top catcher, backed by recent arrival Lauren Heitz -- who just graduated early from high school in Orlando, Fla. Carson-Newman College transfer Shelby Robertson from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe is in the mix at shortstop, second base and third with Baylee Williams from Farragut, Khadija Neely from Roanoke, Ala., and Hannah Hodge from Hopkinsville, Ky.
Fletcher also may play some second base in addition to center field. Besides her, Wilkerson and Qualls in the outfield are Courtney Clark from Murfreesboro Riverdale, Kiauna Chang from Grovetown, Ga., and Sierra Ford from Powhatan, Va.
"I'm a perfectionist by nature, but I understand that the season is a process," Golden said. "I know there are going to be bumps in the road and challenges we will face as a group, but I do expect them to play hard all the time."