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    Inside SEC Softball with Tommy Deas

    Whether it was Alabama’s Kelly Kretschman leading the nation in home runs 1998, Georgia’s Nicole Barber in 2001 setting out on a path that would make her college softball’s all-time career steals leader, Monica Abbott emerging as one of the nation’s top pitchers at Tennessee in 2004 or Florida’s Stephanie Brombacher going a perfect 20-0 in the 2008 season, freshmen have made an impact as long as the Southeastern Conference has been playing softball.

    To succeed on an annual basis, SEC softball programs have to bring in impact freshmen.

    “Especially in the top half of the league, coaches reload with outstanding freshmen,” Kentucky coach Rachel Lawson said. “If you can find someone who can solidify a hole where you lost someone or where you need to get better, it’s enormous.”

    Getting freshmen into the lineup is important for a number of reasons, not the least of which is keeping the cycle of success going.

    “In terms of building for the future, you need to have freshmen that get in there each year,” Auburn coach Tina Deese said. “It’s very important. We had a big crop (of freshmen four years ago), the crop that’s out there now as seniors were all young at one time. As long as they learn from quality leaders, they can be a big help.”

    What makes an impact freshman? Players arrive at SEC schools each year with impressive travel ball and high school credentials, but some take longer to adjust to playing in a major conference than others.

    Lawson believes the impact freshmen arrive with a little something extra that allows them to contribute in a big way right away.

    “I think confidence is a big part of it,” the Kentucky coach said. “I think first and foremost they have to be a winner by nature. The impact freshmen have such a high sense of confidence that they don’t know anything different. They expect to succeed. The other thing is they have to be receptive to coaching. Sometimes freshmen come in and they aren’t used to having to make the adjustments and have somebody show them how to do things a different way, and it affects their confidence.”

    Freshmen sometimes meet immediate success, then discover that they will have to improve their games to stay in the lineup. Every rookie is a blank slate to opposing coaches, but that slate fills in as the freshmen go through their first season.

    “Within the SEC, maybe no one at first knows what to expect,” Deese said. “Maybe you can hang onto the lack of a scouting report a little bit longer, but news travels fast. If you can’t hit a riseball, everybody in the world is going to know.”

    Freshmen make impacts not only with their bats and gloves, but also with their attitude and energy. They bring a newness to rosters each year.

    “It’s refreshing to see them walk out on the field the first time, especially in the great stadiums they get to play in in the SEC,” Lawson said. “To see them do something for the first time, whether it’s getting a hit in an SEC game or whatever, to see the look on their face, it reminds you why you do this.”

    They also bring the ability to help teams bond.

    “It reminds (upperclassmen) of a time when they, too, had to work through some things,” Lawson said. “Sometimes you’ll see them giggle because they’ve been through it, and then they’ll go over and give (the freshman) a pat on the back. I think it helps build a sense of camaraderie.”

    Here’s a look at some of 2012’s impact freshmen, with statistics updated through last weekend:

    Lauren Haeger, Florida: This freshman from Peoria, Ariz., has pitched, played first base and hit in the designated player position. A three-time SEC Freshman of the Week honoree, she carries a .305 batting average with a team-best nine doubles to go with six home runs and 32 RBIs while getting on base at a .542 clip. As a pitcher, she started 9-1 with a 1.43 ERA with one save and 65 strikeouts in 58 2/3 innings. Her .548 average in SEC play leads the Gators.

    Griffin Joiner, Kentucky: Joiner, from Hopkinsville, Ky., has played catcher and designated player for the Wildcats, earning a spot in the starting lineup from opening day. Joiner has compiled a .326 batting average with three home runs, a pair of doubles and 13 RBIs while slugging .449. She has thrown out eight base-stealers from behind the plate.

    Leslie Jury, Alabama: A 6-foot right-hander from Anderson, S.C., Jury has settled into the No. 2 spot in Alabama’s pitching rotation. She has a 9-1 record with a 2.28 earned-run average, holding opponents to a .219 collective batting average. She has thrown four complete games, notched a save and recorded 48 strikeouts in 55 1/3 innings.

    Branndi Melero, Auburn: Melero came to the Tigers from Canyon County, Calif., and has played in all 33 games this season with 32 starts. She is batting .267 with 15 RBIs, has scored 15 runs and has hit two home runs, a triple and three doubles.

    Dylan Supak, LSU: In 22 starts, Dupak has hit safely in 11 of them and is one of four players to reach double digits in RBIs with 11. She has five multi-hit, multi-RBI games while playing at first base, shortstop and batting in the designated player position. The LaGrange, Texas, produce carries a .267 average.

    Cheyanne Tarango, Tennessee: This infielder/designated player from Anaheim Hills, Calif., needed a few weeks to get her bat going but has been hitting .276 since moving into the starting DP role in UT’s series against Florida -- starting off with a .444 hitting weekend against the Gators with a pair of doubles. She also has pitched a couple of scoreless innings, striking out four batters with two hits allowed against Arkansas.

    Devon Wallace, Arkansas: A left fielder from Double Oaks, Texas, Wallace ranks second in the NCAA in walks per game with 31 total and has a .548 on-base percentage that ranks 13th in the country. She started the first 30 games for the Razorbacks, batting .363 in the leadoff position. She leads Arkansas in batting average, slugging percentage (.688), on-base percentage, runs scored (21), RBIs (20) and walks. She also has six home runs, tied for best on the team.

    Paige Wilson, Georgia: From Chicago, the city where softball was invented, this infielder has two SEC Freshman of the Week honors while starting Georgia’s first 32 games. Wilson has a .353 batting average with five home runs, a .412 on-base percentage and a .565 slugging perentage, with eight multi-hit games. She has driven in 29 runs and leads a trio of Georgia rookie starters in hits, doubles, home runs, slugging percentage and batting average.

    STAT OF THE WEEK: Mississippi State sophomore Heidi Shape has batted in every spot in the Bulldogs’ lineup this season except for the leadoff and No. 9 positions. Through 33 games, MSU fielded 17 different lineups.

    Other noteworthy stats: Alabama has hit 54 home runs this season, going deep in 29 of the 33 games. The Tide has belted a home run in 17 straight games entering this weekend. Over that span, Alabama has hit two or more homers on 10 different occasions. On the season UA has hit two or more 19 times. Alabama is 19-0 when it hits two or more home runs. ... LSU posted a weekend shutout of South Carolina. The Tigers are the first team to complete that impressive feat during a three-game series in 2012. It also marked the fourth straight season that the Tigers have posted a weekend shutout of an SEC opponent, after South Carolina (2009, 2010) and Ole Miss (2011). ... Kentucky junior Kara Dill, usually a slap hitter, hit her first career home run in last week’s win over Western Kentucky. She is now the only player on the UK roster with a double, triple and a home run in 2012. ... In Florida’s sweep of Arkansas, senior Michelle Moultrie hit three doubles and two homers, becoming the second Gator this season to have two doubles in a game. ... Tennessee’s Ellen Renfroe has allowed only two runs over her past 47 2/3 innings, dating back over eight total appearances. She has a 0.42 ERA over that span that includes a no-hitter against Furman.

    Tommy Deas is executive sports editor of The Tuscaloosa News and has covered SEC softball since 1997