CHARLESTON, S.C. - Charleston Southern's Marci Christian and Cheyenne Gandara have continued to impress from the plate as the duo sit atop the Big South Conference home run rankings as the Buccaneers head into conference play this weekend.
Christian (12) and Gandara (11) are one of three sets who teammates who have hit double-digit home runs midway through the season, joined by Auburn's Emily Carosone and Jade Rhodes, and Oklahoma's Lauren Chamberlain and Shelby Pendley.
In the NCAA, Christian is currently tied for second overall with 12 home runs after leading the NCAA Division I when the initial rankings were released on March 9th. Gandara homered against Nebraska this past weekend at the Easton Tournament to move into a tie for sixth overall with 11 home runs. Together they have combined for 23 blasts. Last season, the Bucs only had 24 as a team.
With both players battling through injuries last season that limited their offensive output, the Buccaneers focused more on manufacturing runs through their speed and timely hits. Now the duo is healthy and swinging again, there has been a power shift in the lineup with seven different CSU players having gone deep already year.
Christian suffered a season-ending injury last spring, but with 12 home runs in 25 games her approach is similar to her record-setting 2013 campaign when she set the CSU single season mark of 15 home runs.
"I was definitely expecting a lot from myself and was kind of nervous coming back from the injury," said Christian. "This year I've also been focusing more on the team and helping them win and not focusing on how I've been doing personally, which is kind of what I've done in the past. It's been helpful having Chey behind me; it doesn't matter what I do, she's going to pick me up."
The mental aspect of the game has also been a huge part in Christian's bouncing back as well and she credits Head Coach Shane Winkler in her approach at the plate.
"Coach (Winkler) focuses a lot on the mental part of the game," she added. "I just try to focus on every pitch at a time, knowing that I'm going to win that pitch. Then you focus on winning the at-bat. I've learned a lot last year after sitting there and learning. It's really cool to be back."
Gandara also entered the season coming off of a hand injury that limited her to nine at-bats last season after coming off of a double-digit home run performance in her senior season at Hemet High School in Hemet, Calif. A year of watching and learning gave her the motivation to break out in a big way.
"It's amazing actually," said Gandara on stepping into the batter's box. "Coming from last year and not being able to hit, I was definitely nervous, but I was also positive. I hadn't hit in a while and I'm excited for what I've been doing and proud of myself, but I only want to continue to achieve more."
Last season when Gandara left the circle, she could only cheer on the team from the dugout. This season, she is excited about being able to potentially help herself and the team from the plate.
"I'm happy I can hit this year," she commented. "Last year I couldn't help myself out, but this year if I'm not pitching well, I can do something to produce a hit for the team. It's good to help them out in any way I can this year."
The power resurgence has been appreciated by Winkler and the return of Stevi Johnson and Georgi DeLio to the lineup as well as power-hitting freshmen Stephanie Baro and Brooke Lein have the Bucs on track to potentially threaten CSU's single season mark of 49 set two years ago in 2013. Brittany McPherson has also connected on her first collegiate home run this season as the Bucs overall are second in the league with 31 home runs, while outpacing the competition with 135 RBI.
"I think our team is built for power a little more this year," said Winkler. "Unfortunately we have a little less speed that we've had in the past, but our team is built to hit the ball a little deeper than we've had in the past. I'd say seven of our nine hitters in the lineup have the ability to put up runs with one swing of the bat. It's a pretty good feeling to have."
The Buccaneers have already had several game-winning home runs this season including Baro's two-run shot to lead CSU past DePaul this past weekend at the Easton Tournament and Christian's game-winner against Jacksonville State. This timeliness of the home runs this season has not gone unnoticed by Winkler.
"Our pitchers are keeping us in games, keeping it close and giving our hitters the opportunities to hit those key home runs," he commented. "We know with our lineup that a lot of our hitters have the ability to run into one and put runs on the board, but the key is our pitching and defense keeping us in the game. If we're close in the last few innings, we feel we'll be able to get that big hit anywhere in our lineup."
The big hits have kept coming for the Buccaneers as Christian is also closing in on CSU's career home run record of 36 home runs set by former teammate Jana Matthews (2010-13). Currently, she enters the weekend with 31 career blasts in the CSU Blue and Gold.
"It's a really cool feeling," Christian said on approaching the mark. "Jana was a great player for the school and to even be on the same level as her is pretty great. I feel really honored. I'm excited to help our team and if that means breaking it, that's great. If that means getting walks and base hits, that's what I'll do too. It's a really good feeling to be close to that, but I want to win."
The Bucs knew Christian would be providing power to the lineup, but even Gandara was surprised that she has been able to keep pace with her teammate this season.
"I did not expect this," said Gandara on her own power numbers this season. "I knew Marci was going to hit home runs, but I wasn't sure about myself. It's been a fun ride so far!"
Even though the Bucs' duo has continued to keep pace with each other, they will be the first to admit that they are not in a competition and that it is a complete team effort and focus this season.
"Chey has a ton of power and she's going to put up big numbers," said Christian. "It's great having us behind each other. We know if they walk one of us, the other one will step up and produce. There was a game when they walked me and then Cheyenne came up and hit a bomb. Our whole lineup is ready to produce when we need to."
Heading into Big South Conference play, Winkler is confident the Bucs can continue to swing the bats successfully.
"We feel like we've swung it pretty well over the first half of the season," said Winkler. "Our expectation is to pick it up for Big South play. It's the start of a new season for us and our expectation is to step everything up a level. It's getting to the point where we're a little healthier and we're excited to get the second half of our season going."
Gandara echoed the sentiment when asked about the upcoming Big South schedule, "We're ready to rock and roll."
The Bucs open up the 2015 Big South slate at home with a three-game series against Gardner-Webb at the CSU Softball Field with a single game on Friday at 4 p.m., while hosting the Runnin' Bulldogs in a doubleheader on the Big South Network at 1 p.m. on Saturday afternoon.