A look at the 2022 Milligan Lady Buff softball team

Published 11:52 pm Monday, February 7, 2022

CONTRIBUTED BY MILLIGAN ATHLETICS
MILLIGAN – The Milligan University softball team begins its 2022 campaign with its sight set upon another successful season at the conference and national level. The Buffs begin their season with a doubleheader against Alice Lloyd on Feb. 9.
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The Buffs open the 2022 season as the No. 21 team in the nation in the NAIA’s 2022 Preseason Top 25 Coaches’ Poll.
2021 Season Review: The Milligan softball team turned in one of its finest seasons in program history in 2021. The Buffs captured their Appalachian Athletic Conference (AAC) regular-season title since 2012 and qualified for the NAIA Softball National Championship for the third time in the last five full seasons.
A 13-game win streak powered the Buffs to a 15-1 record to open the season. Milligan reeled off nine consecutive wins toward the end of the regular season as the Buffs closed the regular season with a 29-5 record and went 22-4 in AAC play to claim the regular-season crown.
Despite a pair of losses in the AAC Tournament, Milligan’s regular-season conference title secured a spot for the Buffs’ in the NAIA Softball National Championship Opening Round in Lawrenceville, Ga. Milligan downed Rio Grande twice and took down the site host, No. 8 Georgia Gwinnett, to advance to the NAIA Softball World Series for the first time under the current format.
In the NAIA World Series in Columbus, Ga., the Buffs were edged by Bethany (2-0) and Ottawa (3-1). Milligan concluded its season with a 32-9 record, the team’s winningest season since 2008. The Buffs were tabbed as the No. 18 team in the nation in the final NAIA softball rankings.
“Last year’s team was a phenomenal group and a joy to coach,” said 34th-year head coach Wes Holly. “They set goals, were determined, and worked hard to achieve the success they had. Very proud of them.”
Holly was named the AAC Coach of the Year and was joined by Wes Holly Jr. as the NFCA Region I Coaching Staff of the Year. Junior outfielder Katie Cronin collected First Team All-America honors from the NAIA after leading the nation in batting.
One of the most fundamentally sound teams in the country in 2022, Milligan ranked No. 13 nationally in fielding percentage (.869) and earned run average (1.91). Academically, Milligan ranked 10th among all NAIA programs with a team GPA of 3.528 and 13 student-athletes earned Easton/NFCA All-America Scholar-Athlete status.
2022 AAC Preseason Poll: Milligan topped the 2022 AAC Preseason Coaches’ Poll. The Buffs reeled in 12 of 14 first-place votes.
Team (First-Place Votes) – Total Voting Points1. Milligan (12) – 1942. Reinhardt (2) – 1753. Truett McConnell – 1614. Brenau (1) – 1505. Point – 1416. Tennessee Wesleyan – 1407. Bryan – 1228. Union – 1039. Columbia International – 8810. Kentucky Christian – 7911. Bluefield – 6512. Columbia – 5313. Montreat – 5014. St. Andrews – 2415. Johnson – 22
The AAC sent four teams to the 40-team field of the 2021 NAIA Softball National Championship Opening Round. Milligan earned an automatic berth via the Buffs’ regular-season title. Brenau snagged an automatic bid as the AAC Tournament champions and Truett McConnell received an AQ as the AAC’s regular-season runner-up. Reinhardt made it to the opening round as one of 10 at-large teams.
Key Returners: The Buffs return their top two pitchers from last spring plus six of their top eight hitters in terms of at-bats in 2021.
Our returners will be key to this year’s team,” said Holly. “Our pitchers, Erin Forgety, Cloee-anna Merritt, Kendyl McCollister, and Kate Pendleton are very solid and should keep our opponents hitting in check. The infield should be among the best with Bailey Cantrell, April Alvarado, Grace Jones, Allee Griffith, Kate Pendleton anchoring the infield along with help from newcomers Caitlin Mays, Hadley York, Wheatley York, Hannah Taylor, McCoy Hensley, Stephanie Steele, Shaunta Coffey, Alexis Brown, Breanna Sandufer, Abigail Buswell, Ryleigh Owen. Maranda Millington, Hannah Taylor, Wheatley York, and Shaunta Coffey will hold down the catching duties. The outfield should be very good as well with Neelee Griffith and Katie Cronin returning with help from the new recruits Abigail, Shounta, McCoy, Alexis, Breanna, Ryleigh and Stephanie helping out.”
Cronin headlines the Buffs’ returning bats after receiving First Team All-America, AAC Player of the Year and NFCA First Team All-Region honors. She spent the entire season atop the NAIA batting leaderboards and finished the year tied for first in the country with a .519 average (70-135). She ranked second in the country with 1.75 hits per game, and led the Buffs in runs (39), RBI (35), doubles (13), stolen bases (19) and on-base percentage (.529). She logged 25 multi-hit games and the set single-season program record for batting average.
“Katie lead the nation in hitting last year and is a very confident player,” said Holly. “We expect her to stay the course again this season with her performance.”
Senior center fielder Neelee Griffith enters her final season with 24 career home runs, two shy of Milligan Hall of Famer Megan Aldridge Harmon’s career record of 26. Griffith earned All-AAC Second Team status after smacking 11 home runs as a freshman. She finished second in the AAC in home runs (nine) and was 12th in RBI (31).
“Neelee is just a tremendous power hitter,” said Holly. “Our goal for her this year is not to be too anxious and better pitch selection. Everyone knows her, so she needs to be patient at the plate.”
Senior pitchers Erin Forgety and Cloee-Anna Merritt logged a combined 228.1 innings last season and both logged ERAs under two. Forgety secured All-AAC Second Team status last spring after posting a 14-5 record, 1.76 ERA and 96 strikeouts in 115.2 innings. She ranked in the top 50 in the NAIA in opposing batting average (.202), hits allowed per nine (5.20), ERA and walks per nine (1.09).
“Erin is just a very focused pitcher,” said Holly. “She is confident in the circle with command of her pitches and does a great job of controlling our opponent’s hitting. There is no such thing as ‘pressure’ with Erin.”
Merritt also finished in the top 50 nationally with a 1.86 ERA. She went 13-3 on the year with 79 strikeouts to 19 walks in 112.2 innings.
“Cloee-Anna was a great addition to our pitching staff last season,” said Holly. “She is more of a power pitcher and really creates a great combination between she and Erin for our games.”
Junior April Alvarado earned All-AAC Second Team honors last year at the catcher position after posting a .337 batting average with 19 RBI. She ranked third in the AAC with 20 walks on the season and was top-10 in on-base percentage in conference play (.475).
“April is a very fundamentally sound player,” said Holly. “She leads by example, has fun playing the game, and is one of our best players ant playing multi-positions. Her IQ for the game is tremendous no matter what the situation presents. Just an all-around great player.”
Junior second baseman Grace Jones turned in a productive season in 2021 at the top of the Buffs’ lineup. Jones hit .404 with 10 RBI. She led the AAC and was 10th nationally with seven triples. She was sixth in the AAC in on-base percentage (.481), eighth in batting and eighth in slugging (.628).
“Grace is one of the best defensive second basemen I have seen in college,” said Holly. “Her range and ability to make great plays is phenomenal. She is also our leadoff hitter, with great speed,and produces a lot of runs for us.”
Junior Kate Pendleton hit .318 with two home runs and 22 RBI while playing first base or serving as the DP last spring.
Junior infielder Bailey Cantrell appeared in 33 games and memorably blasted a grand slam in the first inning of the clinching game of the Lawrenceville Bracket in the NAIA Opening Round.
Senior pitcher Kendyl McCollister allowed four earned runs in 12.1 innings over 11 appearances last spring.
Juniors Allee Griffith and Miranda Millington appeared in 22 and 13 games respectively in 2021.
“Kate, Bailey, Allee, Miranda, and Kendyl will be counted on heavily this year in both areas of our defense/pitching and particularly the hitting department,” said Holly. “All are capable of being power hitters and producing RBI’s.”
Newcomers: Milligan added two transfers and nine freshmen to the mix for 2022. Junior McCoy Hensley joins the squad after spending two seasons at Cleveland State and sophomore Hanna Taylor signed with the Buffs after two years at Walters State.
“McCoy and Hannah are both JUCO transfers and are experienced players,” said Holly. “We expect them to make an immediate impact to our team, filling some of the losses through our graduates from last seasons.”
Milligan added nine freshmen to the roster in 2022. Hadley and Wheatley York, Abigail Buswell, Shounta Coffey, and Alexis Brown, among others, could look to make an impact this spring.
“All of our new freshmen should see some playing time this season and be able to contribute to our team,” said Holly. “They had a pretty good experience in our fall games and saw the transition and speed of the game that they need to play at our level. I expect great things from them in our future.”
00 Breanna Sandefur Fr. UTL R/R Bristol, TN3 Caitlin Mays Fr. IF R/R Corryton, TN5 Stephanie Steele Fr. UTL R/R Dandridge, TN10 Hadley York Fr. UTL R/R Friendsville, TN12 Hanna Taylor So. C/IF R/R Greeneville, TN15 Ryleigh Owen Fr. OF R/R Johnson City, TN16 Shounta Coffey Fr. UTL R/R Bean Station, TN20 McCoy Hensley Jr. IF R/R Kingsport, TN23 Abigail Buswell Fr. OF R/R Clinton, TN24 Alexis Brown Fr. UTL R/R Talbott, TN30 Wheatley York Fr. C R/R Friendsville, TN
Looking at the Schedule: Milligan is set to play a 28-game conference schedule in addition to nonconference play in 2022.
The Buffs open the season with nonconference doubleheaders against Alice Lloyd and Carolina and a pair of games at the University of the Cumberlands’ Bear Creek Tournament.
AAC play begins on March 3 against Montreat. The Buffs host Kentucky Christian (March 4), Johnson (Tenn.) (March 8), Union (March 17), Columbia (S.C.) (March 19), Reinhardt (March 27), Bryan (March 31), Point (April 2) and CIU (April 8) in AAC play.
Milligan’s AAC road doubleheaders are at St. Andrews (March 6), Brenau (March 11), Truett McConnell (March 12), Tennessee Wesleyan (March 20) and Bluefield (April 5).
The top 10 teams in the regular-season standings will qualify for the AAC Conference Tournament at the Brickyard Ball Fields in Kingsport on April 25-29. After two play-in games to determine the final two teams, the format becomes an eight-team double-elimination tournament.
Last Word: “We are excited to get this season started,” said Holly. “The team has set goals to repeat last season’s success and they are working hard to achieve these goals, ‘I expect nothing less.'”

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