By Chris Whitaker
The Americus Times-Recorder
AMERICUS — Nichole Griffin gave Georgia Southwestern softball coach Eddie Ward a lot to smile about on Sunday.
Griffin was 4-for-8 with a double, triple and home run, and she drove in six runs in her first games back after breaking her collarbone in August 2009.
Even though the Lady Hurricanes split with Brewton Parker, Ward said GSW is set to have its best softball season since joining the Peach Belt Conference five seasons ago.
"I saw some things I needed to see," said Ward. "We had some people I was counting on come through, and we saw some of our weak spots."
GSW will play its first conference games at Armstrong Atlantic on Saturday, so Ward scheduled Columbus State for today. The non-conference doubleheader starts at 2 p.m.
"I know it's early, but it will be a good measuring stick for everybody," he said.
The Lady Hurricanes finished 20-31 last season and 5-15 in the Peach Belt. While they had their first 20-win season, Ward said they should have made the Peach Belt Tournament.
"Last year we missed a golden opportunity to go to the postseason," he said. "We didn't win the games that we had to win. I think that was part of some of our immaturity. The kids I was playing at the time were a vast majority of sophomores. I'm hoping that will give us some more experience, and we can wind up being a more respectable team in the Peach Belt."
GSW graduated four seniors and three others didn't return. It does return four of its top five hitters, including preseason All-PBC performer Gabby Buck. She, Lyndi Duff and Heather Hodge all batted over .300 last season, and Ward expects even more from them this season.
"There's no question they're going to lead," he said. "I expect all three of those girls to hit considerably higher, and there will also be a lot more power."
Throw Griffin and an improved Katie Wooten in the mix, Ward said the Lady Hurricanes should be higher than 10th in batting in the PBC.
"Nichole is going to be a consistent threat every time she steps to the plate," said Ward. "I thought she would be rusty at the plate, but there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of rust. It's unbelievable how well she's come back and how quick she's come back."
GSW was 3-21 last season in games where it scored two runs or less. Ward said the team is buying into his teachings, and he suspects North Georgia and Francis Marion could be the only conference teams to hold the Lady Hurricanes under five runs.
"I don't think Sarah Phillips, the Peach Belt Pitcher of the Year at North Georgia can hold us to two runs," he said. "I think this team will score an awful lot of runs on a lot of people. The way we've been hitting the ball since we got back in January, everybody is focused, and the chemistry is real good."
Ward expects newcomers Katie Maddox (1B/P) and Jessica Chewning (C) to have big years at the plate as well. He said Chewning has a strong arm and the percentage of opponents stealing bases will decrease.
Instead of weights, the team is now doing push-ups, and 100 of them a day. Ward said that will help with strength and power and can prove to be big at the plate.
The Lady Hurricanes were ninth in pitching last season with a 3.68 ERA overall, but it ballooned to 4.17 in conference play.
Jessica Martin is back after posting a 4-3 record and a 2.66 ERA in conference games. She will be joined by Maddox and Christie Shankie as starters while Tiffany Milstid, Katie Mueller and Casey Burns will take on the reliever roles.
"Jessica, Katie (Maddox) and Christie are all hitting 60, maybe 62 (miles per hour)," said Ward. "I think people will have to adjust to us having that much diversity on our pitching staff. I really think the thing that will benefit us the most is we've got Tiffany and Katie (Mueller), they're what you call off-speed specialists. We can throw a lot of people at them."
GSW was picked to finish last in the preseason coaches poll, but Ward said any less than sixth will be a disappointment.
"There's no question our pitching will be better and our catching is better," he said. "The defense is older. They've got more experience under them now and will be more prepared for crucial situations. I think that's going to make a big difference. I think we're going to surprise a whole lot of folks in the Peach Belt."