CHARLESTON, S.C. - Charleston Southern opens up the 2015 season this weekend as the Buccaneers welcome Southern Illinois, UMBC and Ohio State to the CSU Softball Field for their first CSU Tournament of the spring. The Bucs open up play on Friday afternoon against UMBC with first pitch scheduled for 2 p.m.
The CSU lineup will see a number of familiar faces from last year's Big South Conference Championship squad even though the Bucs graduated seven senior last season. Led by sophomore ace and reigning Big South Tournament MVP Cheyenne Gandara, the 2015 Bucs feature six players who started the championship game last season and welcome the return of seniors Jennifer Giles and Marci Christian to the mix as CSU looks to defend their title.
"I'm excited about the group we have this year," said CSU head coach Shane Winkler. "We are still a young team, but most of our kids gained a great deal of experience last season and they have grown up a ton in the past year. We have the potential to be a special team if we can keep the game in front of us and continue to focus on the next pitch."
CSU was picked fourth overall last week in the Big South Conference's Preseason Coaches' Poll. The Bucs received 51 points and a first place vote in the poll after returning a roster that features six sophomores who lined up in over 30 games last season.
"The release of the preseason poll means it's almost Go-Time," Winkler commented. "This is the tightest the Big South has ever been from top to bottom and I voted us #1 because I see this being a special team that can surprise a lot of people as we did last May."
Last season, the Bucs featured Big South Conference series wins over Winthrop, Liberty and Gardner-Webb in the regular season and with more experience, CSU will look add to that list this season.
"Once again we are going to be challenged with our preseason schedule," said Winkler. "We will play multiple ranked opponents and teams from major conferences and we look forward to the process of getting better each and every time we take the field. We want to be at our best once Big South play begins since conference play will be a battle each and every game, but we are looking to compete on a national level and our tough schedule gives us the opportunity to do just that."
Gandara and Giles return to patrol the circle for the Bucs this season and will be joined by freshman Hayley Elkins who will make her debut for the Bucs on the rubber this year.
Gandara led the Bucs in multiple categories last season including appearances, complete games, shutouts, saves, innings pitched and strikeouts. She tied with Giles for the team lead with 11 wins and finished second in the CSU single season record book with 153 strikeouts on the year. She went 3-0 with a save in the Big South Conference Tournament last year in garnering MVP honors and leading the Bucs to their first NCAA Tournament in program history.
Giles continues to make her way through the CSU record books entering her final season with the Bucs. The Jupiter, Fla., native was a 2014 Big South All-Academic selection and finished the season with 11 victories and a team-best 2.37 ERA on the year.
Elkins comes in as a power pitcher from Dutch Fork High School and Irmo, S.C., where she was a five-time All-Region selection and a two-time Regional Player of the Year. She owns the Dutch Fork career ERA and home run records.
Georgi DeLio returns to complete the battery for the Bucs behind the plate and will split time with Yonan and Christian.
DeLio was the Bucs primary catcher last season with 56 starts and 59 games played, hitting .260 on the season. She recorded one of the biggest hits of her career with her first collegiate home run in the Big South Tournament in CSU's 4-3 win over Presbyterian. She also threw out eight attempted base stealers and had four pickoffs.
Freshman Jordan Evans will fight for playing time this season after coming to the Bucs from New Zion, S.C. where she was a two-time All-Region selection at East Clarendon High School.
Christian and 2014 Big South All-Freshman and All-Tournament selection Stephanie Bergmann are the headliners in the Buccaneers infield this season with Yonan, Brittany McPherson, Brooke Holcomb and Lexie Vanada all returning to the field this year.
Christian saw action in only 16 games last season due to injury, but was leading the team with a .341 batting average with four doubles and four home runs prior to her season's end. Christian enters the season fourth all-time in the CSU record books in career home runs and is the Bucs' single season home run record holder with 15 home runs in 2013.
Bergmann finished fourth on the team with a .280 batting average, but stood out in postseason play hitting .500 in the Big South Conference Tournament with a team-high two doubles. She lined up in all 61 games on the season at shortstop and caught the game-ending line drive to start the celebration in the circle to clinch the Big South Championships.
Yonan, the lone junior on the CSU squad, has seen time at second base, shortstop and third base and played in 60 games last season with 55 starts. She was third on the team in drawing 16 walks and had five doubles on the season.
McPherson and Holcomb both lined up at first base for the Bucs last season with McPherson seeing action in 26 games as both a pinch-hitter and defensive replacement. She also scored the go-ahead run in CSU's 3-1 championship win over Coastal Carolina. Holcomb was the primary pinch-hitter for the Bucs off the bench earning seven starts with 35 games played. She had three doubles and a pair of home runs, connecting on deep balls against both Longwood and College of Charleston. Vanada will also see time at first and provides a powerful bat to the Bucs' lineup with a home run against Rider.
Freshmen Stephanie Baro and Brooke Lein will look to man the hot corner this season for the Bucs with Baro coming to CSU from La Mirada High School in La Mirada, Calif. where she lined up at both corner positions and the outfield. Lein also lined up on the corners at La Sierra High School in Riverside, Calif., where she was a four year varsity starter and three-time First Team All-League selection.
Sophomores Amanda Matsumoto and Stevi Johnson return to lead the youngest unit on the field for the Bucs as newcomers Brook Richardson, Taylor Powell and Cierra Robinson will all seek playing time this season in the outfield.
Matsumoto, another Big South All-Tournament and All-Freshman selection, led the Bucs in multiple categories on the year including runs scored, triples and stolen bases. She set a Big South Tournament freshman record with hits in her first four postseason at-bats and was named the Choice Hotels Player of the Week on February 10th after leading the Bucs with a .545 batting average with five runs scored and five stolen bases on the week.
Johnson started off her postseason with a bang last year with a two-run home run in her first at-bat to put the Bucs ahead, 3-0, against Longwood. She finished the season sixth on the team in batting average while starting 16 of the last 17 games in the outfield.
Richardson joined the Bucs after spending the past two seasons at Pensacola State College and Seminole State College. She earned Second Team All-Conference honors at Pensacola State after hitting .367 with three home runs. Robinson was a five year letter-winner at Spring Valley High School where she earned MVP honors as a member of the two-time 4A SC High School Regional Champions. Powell finished up her high school playing career at Summerville High School with a lifetime .530 batting average in the regular season and a .706 postseason average, leading the team in runs scored and stolen base percentage.
Four home tournaments, trips to South Carolina and Cal State Fullerton, and home conference clashes against Gardner-Webb, Winthrop, Liberty and Coastal Carolina highlighting the 2015 regular season schedule for the Buccaneers.
The CSU Softball Field will be home to four different tournament weekends and the Bucs will be on their home field 33 times in the 2015 season. Last year, CSU went 15-16-1 overall at home.
The Bucs will look to continue their postseason success this year at the 2015 Big South Softball Championships held in Buies Creek, N.C. from May 7-10 by Campbell University.