A new era will begin for the Tusculum softball program this weekend as Julie Huebner leads the team as head coach for the first time. But if opponents assume the Lady Pioneers are going through a transition period, they are wrong.
Huebner has been an assistant coach at Tusculum the past two years, and she returns an experienced squad that has helped lead the program unprecedented success.
When the Lady Pioneers open the 2013 campaign Saturday with a home doubleheader against Milligan, they hope this will be just another step toward competing for South Atlantic Conference championships.
"As far as the transition, it has been good," Huebner said. "The returners new me as an assistant, but we have a lot of mature kids who have helped make the process easy."
"We have a goofy team, they like to have fun. But at the same time, we are demanding more of them and trying to get them to give more and push themselves to the limit. They are positive and they work hard, and we feel like once we start playing, everything will fall into place."
Tusculum is coming off back-to-back 30-plus win seasons, which is the best two-year run since the school joined the NCAA Division II ranks in 1999.
The Lady Pioneers went 32-25 a year ago, including a 9-9 mark and fifth-place finish in the conference.
Prior to 2011, the program had enjoyed just two winning seasons since 1998. Needless to say, the winning mentality is starting to catch on inside the program.
"We have a young group, so they are still learning (how to win), but I think now it's more of an expectation," Huebner said.
"Last year, it was more of like, 'Well, we won the year before, but was that a fluke or was it really us'. This year, we have a key group of returners that are feeding to these freshmen that we are going to be pretty good."
This year's senior class is small on quanity by large on quality.
Right-handed pitcher Elizabeth Johnson is an All-Region player who has started the past two seasons for the Lady Pioneers.
Umberger, who transfered from Tennessee Tech after her freshman season, has started 105 games over the past two seasons and is one of the top defensive players in the conference.
"Defensively and pitching, we were pretty sound (last year)," Huebner said, "and those two girls were a big reason for it."
Johnson earned All-South Atlantic Conference First Team honors last year after being the first pitcher in the nation to reach 20 wins in 2012. She finished the year with a 27-13 record - which was the 13th most wins in Division II - and a 2.26 earned run average.
She has been named to this year's All-SAC Preseason Team, along with teammates Kaytlin Stroinski and Nicole Ball.
Johnson handled almost all of the pitching duties last year, but Huebner brought in junior transfer Kelly King to help share the load this season.
King is more of a finesse pitcher, compared to the hard-throwing Johnson, and helped Indiana (Pa.) University to two straight Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) championships and a trip to the 2011 Division II College World Series.
A familiar face returns behind the plate in junior catcher Paige Sneed. She has started since she set foot on the Tusculum campus two years ago.
"Paige is really good behind the plate because she is smart and has great game sense," Huebner said. "She is one of our team leaders out there. She gets everyone in the right spots out on the field."
Among the key retuners in the infield are sophomores Nicole Ball and Alix Kruel.
Ball started the year at second base last season, but suffered a season-ending injury right before the conference schedule began. Kruel finished out the season in her spot.
Both will be in the starting line-up to begin this season - Ball at third base and Kruel at second.
Ball is a former Cocke County High School standout.
Stroinski is another talented sophomore. She was a First Team All-SAC selection during her rookie season after finishing with the second-highest fielding percentage in Tusculum history.
She was also a strong contributor at the plate, leading the team in hits (48), runs (32), home runs (3) and stolen bases (8).
Huebner will also count on junior centerfielder Katie Brennan to be one of the team's most consistent hitters this year. She was third on the team in runs batted in in 2012.
Seven freshmen are on the roster this year, and Huebner is hoping several will make significant contributions.
One of those is Carlolyn Williamson, a left-handed hitter from Knox Catholic High School. She is penciled in as the opening-game starter in left field, and Huebner believes she will evolve into a spark plug for the offense from the lead-off spot.
Offense was the weak spot of the team last year, according to the head coach, but she brought in first-year assistant Alicia Boris to help out with that.
Huebner has been pleased with the results so far, noting that the team scored 30 runs in six scrimmages during the fall.
"When I went looking for an assistant, I wanted someone who knew hitting, and she has came in her and done a great job," Huebner said. "What she is doing is not brain surgery, it's just stressing the fundamentals."
"Her approach is to stay the course and stick with what we are teaching. Eventually it will become muscle memory."
Tusculum was picked fifth in the SAC Preseason Coaches Poll. Three-time defending conference champion Lenoir-Rhyne was picked first, followed by Anderson, who returns the reigning SAC Player of the Year in Abby Child.