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Northeast Mississippi Community College head softball coach Jody Long has never been one that backed down from an opponent and with the national tournament being held in Mississippi this year, Long and the Lady Tigers are ready for the task at hand.
Northeast opened the 2012 softball season on Feb. 9 at Calhoun Community College in Decatur, Ala., but just a week after the meeting with the Lady Warhawks sits a pair of games against opponents that were a combined 105-17 last year and one is the defending national champion.
Northeast, which finished the 2011 season with a 25-23 record and made it back to the Mississippi Association of Community/Junior Colleges (MACJC) State Tournament, will open the Rush Invitational in Meridian on February 17 against Central Alabama and LSU-Eunice.
Central Alabama finished the 2010-11 season with a 47-7 record and played four games in the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Division I National Softball Tournament while LSU-Eunice wrapped up the 2010-11 season with a 58-10 record and brought the NJCAA Division II National Softball Championship back to Eunice, Louisiana.
“We are looking forward to getting our season started against Calhoun,” Long said. “However, before we reach division play on March 1, we will be faced with some very tough opponents in the Rush Tournament and the Tiger-Fest 10. We have a very talented team this year and getting to play such good talent at the start of the season will only build our confidence going into division play.”
However, Northeast cannot focus on just two games during a 46-game regular season schedule because dates with Southwest Mississippi, Marion Military and host Meridian following in the Rush Invitational.
Long has even brought some of the nation’s best to Booneville a week later when the Lady Tigers host their tenth-annual TigerFest softball tournament that will see Northeast play seven games in two days where the Lady Tigers will play opponents from five different states.
Nevertheless, Long is ready to get the season started.
“We are excited about the possibilities this year,” Long said. “We have great leadership and have a ton of kids coming back that saw playing time last year.”
Long returns 12 sophomores from the team that advanced to the MACJC state tournament last year.
“Those kids have been in the trenches,” Long said. “They understand our game and what hard work brings for them…out of those 12, ten of them saw game experience last year.”
One area that returns the majority of starters for the Lady Tigers is the outfield.
Kimberly Jumper and Claire Wilkerson, both of West Union along with Madeline Hickman of Booneville are set to man the outfield for the Lady Tigers and Anchorage, Alaska-native Jazmin Smith, who pitched for Northeast last year, is also expected to see time there as well as Booneville’s Jessica Pannell.
On the infield, Long expects to see three sophomores battling for time at first base. Hannah Hastings (Booneville) drew the starting nod during the 2010-11 season but is recovering from surgery in the off season and Kelsie Follin (Kossuth) and Brittany Minton (Horn Lake) have stepped up their time.
Raleigh Downs (Booneville) returns to her natural position at second for her second tour with the Lady Tigers as Leeanna Nelms (Kossuth) is also expected to see time there.
Downs was forced to third during her freshman year with the Lady Tigers due to injuries but with four people working the ‘hot corner,’ Downs can move back to her natural position.
Team captain Nicki Whitten of Booneville will man the shortstop position while New Albany’s Ellen Tarrent and a trio from the Lady Tiger battery is competing for time at third.
Lady Tiger pitcher Erin Dixson (Amherst, NY) and Jaisa Fox (Cincinnati, Ohio) along with catcher Andrea Cutts (Ackerman) are also slated to see time at third when not at their primary positions.
One area that Long is happy about is seeing the return of Fox on the mound. Fox returns after an injury just eight games into the 2010-11 season and is surrounded with talented freshmen.
“We are very excited about our pitching staff,” Long said. “Jaisa is coming off an arm injury last year but had an outstanding early part of the season and we have two freshman that we are excited about.”
Joining Fox and Dixson on the mound is Alabama-native Kristen Claunch, who helped lead Colbert Heights to a Top 10 ranking in the state of Alabama.
Behind the plate, left-handed catcher Katie Beth Dahlem (Hamilton) returns after being thrust into a starting role last year after Leslie Hendrix went down to an injury and Cutts is also slated to see time behind the plate for the Lady Tigers.
With a myriad of sophomores and freshmen on the squad, Long is excited about the possibilities.
“Our goal this year with the national tournament held in Mississippi is to win the North Division and host the state tournament here,” Long said. “Our ultimate goal is to make the national tournament.”