RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. - One year after claiming both of the Great American Conference's regular-season and tournament titles, Southeastern Oklahoma State emerged as the preseason softball favorite following a vote of the league's head coaches, the conference office announced on Tuesday.
A season ago, the Savage Storm posted a 45-9 record and qualified for its seventh NCAA Tournament bid. They return both of their starting pitchers - Mindy McElroy and Jacee Bennett. McElroy earned the GAC Pitcher of the Year and GAC Tournament MVP honors as she went 22-3 with a 1.77 ERA. Bennett posted a 21-5 record with a 2.71 ERA and an NCAA-leading nine saves. She received the GAC Newcomer of the Year award. Offensively, Southeastern brings back three Second-Team All-GAC performers - shortstop Lacie Cook, third baseman Laramie Beal and second baseman Jessica Simmons.
East Central took second in the poll. They posted a 42-13 record in 2013 and finished second to Southeastern in the GAC standings. The Lady Tigers must replace Player of the Year Shelby Simmons, however, they bring back 2013 Freshman of the Year Lacey Paulk. She went 19-3 with a 2.11 ERA and 133 strikeouts in 133.0 innings pitched. The league's top offense brings back First-Team All-GAC catcher Gina Mengwasser, Second-Team second baseman Chelsea Patterson and outfielder Leah Tigert. Mengwasser hit .390 with 12 home runs. Patterson and Tigert each hit better than .380.
Arkansas-Monticello and Arkansas Tech placed third and fourth in the poll. One year after winning the GAC title, the Cotton Blossoms fell back with a 29-25 mark. They bring back First-Team All-GAC outfielder Beth Johnson. She hit .335 with eight home runs and 31 RBI. Under first-year head coach Kristina McSweeney, the Golden Suns improved their win total by 10 from 2012 to 2013. Siarra Gomez earned All-American honors after she hit .355 with 16 home runs and 48 RBI. Whitney Robinson, a First-Team All-GAC outfielder who hit .403, returns for Arkansas Tech.
Southern Arkansas and Henderson State wound up fifth and sixth in the preseason poll. The Lady Muleriders bring back First-Team All-GAC pitcher Hanna Gill. She led the league in innings pitched, strikeouts and appearances. She tossed a no-hitter in SAU's lone GAC Tournament win, a 5-0 victory against Southwestern Oklahoma State. The Lady Reddies advanced to the title game of the 2013 GAC Tournament. Sarah Gipson and Morgan South, two members of the All-Tournament team, return for the 2014 season.
Ouachita Baptist and Southern Nazarene shared seventh place and Northwestern Oklahoma State took ninth. Jason Anderson takes over as head coach for the Lady Rangers. Southwestern Oklahoma State and Harding rounded out the poll. This year marks the first softball season for the Lady Bisons since 1985. Phil Berry, a Harding graduate, will lead the program.
The 2014 season begins on Friday, February 1. East Central and Southeastern Oklahoma State will participate at the St. Mary's NCAA Division II College Classic. Southern Arkansas will travel to the West Florida Invitational. Henderson State and Ouachita Baptist will host an invitational. The 2014 GAC Tournament will take place from Thursday, May 1 through Saturday, May 3 in Bentonville, Ark.