One might say a good position to be when attempting to defend a National Championship is to have returning some of your key players that hoisted the hardware the season before.
Well, for Virginia Wesleyan head softball coach Brandon Elliott, one of those key players comes in the form of last season’s Schutt Sports/NFCA National Player of the Year, hurler Hanna Hull.
It’s not just on the defensive side of things that Coach Elliott can look forward to this year’s campaign.
At the plate, returning First Team All-American first baseman Cassetty Howerin brings her powerful bat back to the lineup for the Marlins for her senior season.
Hull and Howerin were named Fast Pitch News Preseason All-Americans, with Hull being named to the First Team and Howerin earning Honorable Mention honors.
In The Circle
Hull, now a sophomore, earned NCAA Championship Most Outstanding Player honors for leading the Marlins (54-3) to their first D3 softball National Championship as well as pushing a reset on most of the school and conference records during an impressive 32-3 season. Hull posted an ERA of 0.51, while striking out 372 batters and registering five saves.
Hull broke the Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC) record for ERA in a season, previously held by Roanoke‘s Erin Smith, who recorded a 0.53 mark in 2002. She also topped the win mark held by another Roanoke pitcher, Kelly Higbie. The Maroon hurler won 30 games in 2012.
It didn’t take long for Hull to obliterate the ODAC single-season strikeout record, previously held by Virginia Wesleyan’s Brittaney Brown who whiffed 218 batters in 210. Hull sits only 209 strikeouts away from the all-time career mark of 581 held by Brown with three years still to play.
Elliott said the Marlins are looking for similar success from the mound this season.
“We have been fortunate to be very talented in the circle over the last ten years or so, and [I] feel as if we are just as good — if not better – in the circle this year,” said Elliott.
At the Plate
On offense, the Marlins can look for the return of First Team All-American Cassetty Howerin, who is coming off a potent year from the box batting .434 and edging up her career average to .455.
Howerin has knocked in 159 RBI in her career, topping the Virginia Wesleyan charts and sitting her just 32 behind the ODAC all-time record. One of her top moments came in the final game of the National Championship as her double knocked in the sole run of the contest to give the Marlins a 1-0 victory.
NO EASY PATH
With their two top players returning after taking the National Title in 2017, the Marlins have their sights set on defending that crown.
The Marlins recently released its schedule for the upcoming 2018 season and the schedule boasts a full 40-game regular season slate with half of them to be played at home.
They will have to go through plenty of tough competition to get there, though, as VWU’s strength of schedule is among the toughest in the country.
The squad opens its season with doubleheaders against Meredith College and North Carolina Wesleyan College on Feb. 17 and 20, respectively, but some of the more difficult competition will take place on the team’s Spring Break trip to Arizona.
During the trip, the Marlins will play six games, five of which come against regionally ranked opponents. Beginning March 2, they will square off against William Paterson University, who ended ranked fourth in the east region and follow that up with a game against Moravian College (receiving votes in the NFCA Coaches Poll) later that day. The next day, VWU will face its first bit of nationally-ranked competition as it takes on No. 9 East Texas Baptist University. In the final day of the Arizona trip, the team will go to battle against regionally ranked University of Rochester and then Texas Lutheran, who finished 10th in the National Polls.
Returning to Virginia, the Marlins continue their streak of stiff competition as they take on nearby rival Christopher Newport University. The Captains, who finished fourth in the Atlantic Region last season, will come to town on March 11. Four days later, the squad will take on Emory University, who also finished regionally ranked.
As the Marlins enter ODAC play, things won’t get any easier. The team finds itself pitted against Lynchburg on March 24 for a home doubleheader. The Hornets ended last season ranked eighth in the Atlantic Region. Emory & Henry on April 7 will also be a tough task as the Wasps were responsible for one of the three total losses the Marlins had last season. Randolph-Macon will be the last nationally recognized opponent VWU faces, as they finished the 2018 ranked 17th in Division III. The doubleheader against R-M will take place on April 18 at home.
Despite the difficult schedule, Coach Elliott and his staff have confidence heading into 2018. The team ended last year with a program-record 54 wins and have plenty of talent returning from last season’s squad.
“We are always striving to be as close to perfect as we can.” said Elliott. “Coming off of an incredible season in 2017 it is easy to look at numbers and start comparing things. However, numbers don’t tell the whole story”.
Looking toward this spring’s campaign the difficult schedule is a factor.
“We could actually be better this year but our stats could tell a different story,” added Elliott. “We are really challenged with the strength of our schedule so there is certainly going to be some adversity in a lot of areas. As long as we can stay healthy and respond to the challenges of our schedule we will be in a good place”.
Coach Elliott, Hull, Howerin, and the rest of the Marlins will open the season at 1 p.m. on Feb. 17 as the team kick off their 2018 slate with a doubleheader against Meredith at home.