CHARLOTTE, N.C. (BigSouthSports.com) - Charleston Southern was selected fourth overall in the Big South Conference softball preseason coaches' poll as announced by the league office on Wednesday afternoon.
The Buccaneers received one first-place vote and 41 points overall in the poll after finishing the 2017 season with a 10-11 conference record and earning the No. 4 seed in the 2017 Big South Conference Championships.
Head Coach Shane Winkler enters his 10th season at the helm with the Bucs. The veteran coach returns a blend of youth and power to the squad while welcoming 10 newcomers to the roster.
Buccaneers' junior outfielder Jade Gandara finished second in the Big South Preseason Player of the Year voting after receiving 16 points and two first-place votes. The Hemet, Calif. native led the Big South with 17 doubles and was second in the conference standings in home runs, slugging percentage, RBI, and total bases on her way to earning 2017 First Team All-Conference recognition.
Other key returners to the Bucs 2018 team include Second Team All-Conference utility player Caitlyn Emberson and All-Freshman selection Mallory Kasinger, as well as pitchers Holly Clark and Arizona Pilgrim. The Bucs also return seniors Nicole Ayala and Laina Holmgren, while Destini Ewing, Summer Moore, Christi Takac, and Sydney Garling all reprise their roles and give key experience in the field.
Three-time defending champion Longwood University has been voted the Big South Conference's preseason softball favorite by the league's head coaches. In addition, the coaches voted Liberty sophomore Amber Bishop (Murrieta, Calif.) the conference's Preseason Player of the Year and junior teammate Julia DiMartino (Brockport, N.Y.) the league's Preseason Pitcher of the Year.
Liberty was second in the preseason poll with 56 points and one first-place vote, while Campbell was third with 43 points (one first-place vote). Charleston Southern finished fourth in the voting with 41 points and received one first-place nod. Radford was chosen fifth with 31 points, with Winthrop landing in the sixth spot with 26 points. Presbyterian College garnered seventh-place (16 points), followed by Gardner-Webb in eighth with 15 points.
Bishop is the second Lady Flame to receive Preseason Player of the Year honors in the award's 13-year history and the first since Jessica Moore was honored in 2006 and 2007. Bishop was the 2017 Big South Freshman of the Year, a First-Team All-Conference pick and an NFCA All-Region Third-Team selection. A Top 25 Finalist for National Freshman of the Year, the second baseman led the Big South in four categories in 2017 -- hits (85), runs (55), RBI (66) and total bases (141) in addition to batting .373 with 15 home runs and a .618 slugging percentage. She received five first-place votes and 19 points in the preseason voting, ahead of Charleston Southern's Jade Gandara (16 points and two first-place votes) and Campbell's Caroline Smith (nine points and one first-place vote).
DiMartino is the reigning Big South Pitcher of the Year, as she amassed a league-high and program-record 22 wins with a 1.91 earned run average, seven shutouts and 175 strikeouts in 198.0 innings pitched in 2017. In Big South action, she was 11-3 with a 1.62 ERA and 74 strikeouts in 78.0 innings, and held conference batters to a .241 average. The second Liberty hurler to be named Big South Preseason Pitcher of the Year, DiMartino collected six first-place votes and 19 points, ahead of Longwood's Sydney Gay (13 points and one first-place vote) and Radford's Abby Morrow (nine points).
The 2018 Big South softball season begins Thursday, Feb. 8, while the first conference meeting is set for the weekend of March 10-11. The 2018 Big South Softball Championship is slated for May 9-12, and the six-team postseason tournament will be hosted by Radford University in Radford, Va.