GREENSBORO -- North Carolina A&T head coach Mamie Jones enters her 19th season at helm of the Aggies fastpitch softball program with as deep a roster as she has had over the past several seasons. The Aggies return eight starters from last season's 16-35 team. They begin play, Saturday, Feb. 16 at the Lady Aggies Softball Complex in a 1 p.m., doubleheader versus Morgan State.
Along with those numerous returners, Jones added six newcomers to complement what should be a talented 2013 squad. Another upside for Jones is the fact that it appears she can keep this deep team together for a few years. Jones does not have any position players who are seniors. The strength of her team is six juniors who are all two-year starters.
"It wasn't planned that way," said Jones about amassing what is a talented junior class. "When you think back to the class we had three years ago with seven seniors, the junior class we have now filled those scholarships."
Jones is not a fan of having to roll in big classes every three or four years because there are some years where depth can't be added. An increase in scholarship dollars allowed Jones to add a few more players this season, so those gaps don't occur when this junior class leaves after the 2014 season.
The leader among Jones' junior class does not have the same name she had last season, but Jones hopes she has the same bat. Jax Kaye Woodard, formerly known as Juanita Jernigan, battled a hamstring injury last season that forced her to miss 12 games. After the Aggies April 15 game at Savannah State, Woodard only batted seven times over the final month of the season. Despite the setback, Woodard batted a team-best .342 with five home runs and 23 RBI. Woodard's excellent season earned her first-team All-MEAC honors at first base. Woodard also earned All-State honors from the North Carolina Sports Information Association. Woodard's accolades were made even more impressive by her .975 fielding percentage in her first year of playing first base. But Woodard's injury did hamper the Aggies chances in the MEAC Softball Championship Tournament. She was only able to make one plate appearance, and the Aggies were eliminated in three games.
"I'm very glad to have her back healthy," Jones said about Woodard. "She has a big bat, and she has worked very hard on her hitting. She really wants to improve on her stats from last year."
Woodard, a preseason All-MEAC selection, will join with 2012 second-team All-MEAC third baseman Tranea Jones to give the Aggies experienced pop in the middle of the lineup. Add junior slugger and catcher Sabrina Edmonds in the mix and the Aggies have what are tough outs at the three, four and five hitting positions in the lineup. Jones is perhaps the Aggies best contact hitter. She batted .329 with nine doubles, four home runs and 19 RBI. Edmonds, the Aggies other preseason All-MEAC selection, had a career year in 2012. She batted .303 with 29 RBI and a conference-leading 11 home runs.
"All three are capable of providing us with a lot of power," said Jones about three players - Jones, Woodard and Edmonds - who combined to drive in 71 of the Aggies 183 runs scored last season. "For them, I think the most important thing is that they are consistent. If they are not consistent, then having them in the middle of the lineup is not going to help anything. If they're consistent, we'll be fine. If not, we have other kids who are capable of stepping in this year to provide us some power and pop in the lineup."
Edmonds could share time at catcher with freshman Alexiss Dominguez and be the Aggies designated player. The Aggies three other juniors - Tiffany Macklin, Dominique Smith and Detavia Keenan - will also be fighting for playing time with some of the Aggie newcomers. Macklin can play second base or center field. She is a speedy player who can provide timely hitting at the bottom of the Aggies lineup. Smith controlled center field for A&T last season and took over the leadoff duties at the plate. She hit .283, walked a team-high 11 times and stole nine bases. Keenan can play right or left field. She led the team in stolen bases with 11 in 2012.
Raven Smith and Zabresha Blakeney are the only two sophomores on the team. Smith played left field, hit .292 and started all 51 games. Blakeney, who had to play out of position at shortstop in 2012, will be back at her natural position of second base this season. The Aggies lone senior this season is right-handed pitcher Ashira Dobison. As the Aggies ace last season, she went 15-21 with a 4.79 ERA and 177 strikeouts. This season she will compete for the top spot with freshman Janika May and Bowie State transfer Shelby Snyder.
"We finally have some depth with our pitching," said Jones, who has had to convert position players into pitchers in the recent past. "Janika May is a strong kid - good athlete - who can hit and pitch. She has a large selection of pitches with very good movement on the ball."
Jones compared Snyder to former Aggies pitcher Sasha Philpot, one of the Aggies all-time leaders in pitching victories. Snyder can hit spots, throw a wicked low ball and the movement on her pitches baffles hitters, according to Jones. Like May, Snyder is also a good hitter.
"It's a three-pitcher rotation. We don't have a starter yet," said Jones. "It depends on them and their work ethic. I don't have a problem going with a freshman or a transfer pitcher, if they're getting the job done."
Pitching will be essential for the Aggies as they compete in the tough Southern Division of the MEAC. It is a division that includes perennial Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M, both of whom have won numerous MEAC titles. It also includes a Savannah State team that went 12-3 in the division last season.
"We wanted to improve our pitching and our defense," said Jones. "Previous years we haven't had the depth we wanted. We haven't had the pitching we needed. With the doubleheaders and tournaments we play, we have to have pitching. "Defensively, all we've worked on is fielding, so they're fielding and throwing has stepped up a notch."