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McClain, Dawson get All-Sun Belt love as softball starts conference tournament

Senior outfielder Ashley McClain now has a hat trick of First Team All-Sun Belt honors and sophomore pitcher Mariah Dawson has a Second Team notice after the teams were announced Tuesday, the day before the Sun Belt tournament starts at FAU.

FIU opens against Troy at 11 a.m. Wednesday.

Race cars and teams with new coaches usually don’t fly right out of the box. Adjustments must be made, tinkering. It’s not until later in the week or the race that you’ll get the best runs.

Such was the case this year with FIU softball (27-25, 15-9), which begins the Sun Belt tournament Wednesday morning against Troy at FAU.

Beth Torina jumped to LSU after four years at FIU and Jake Schumann took over.

“Whenever a team has to adjust to a new coaching staff, it’s the team that has to do the most adjusting,” Schumann said. “Coach Torina did a great job. We coached differently. I’m sure it was a culture shock to them.”

McClain, FIU’s career leader in almost everything involving bat use, agreed, saying the difference is “more of a focus, I would say.”

And, Schumann admitted, “We have to learn what their strengths and weaknesses are” something weather and schedule prevented much of in the fall.

Also, FIU didn’t exactly start the season popping open tomato cans for opponents.

The second game of the season, they faced now No. 8 Louisville and lost 4-2. The next game, they lost 3-1 to UMass, which received votes in the most recent ESPN/USA Softball Top 25 poll. Also receiving votes: FIU beaters Alabama-Birmingham (6-4) and Tulsa (4-1). At the DeMarini Invitational at Fullerton, Cal., the Panthers got drilled 8-1 by undisputed No. 1 Cal and 10-0 by Cal’s Bay Area’s private cousin/rival, No. 17 Stanford.

But in their final game in Fullerton, they beat No. 24 Oregon State, 4-1.They took one of three from No. 6 Louisiana-Lafayette, accounting for 33.3 percent of the total losses suffered by the 46-3 Ragin’ Cajuns.

 “We had a really tough beginning part of the season. It’s helped us out in the long run because we had tough competition and we stuck with it,” said senior pitcher Jenn Gniadek, the Sun Belt’s Pitcher of the Week for last week. “Now, we know we can stay with the tougher teams. We know we can beat the teams in our conference.

“I think our team is good at not being afraid of anybody.”

McClain termed this season “a learning experience,” but also said, “I would say it was a good season. I wouldn’t change a thing about it.”

Early in the season, she had to adjust to getting the star treatment.

“Teams definitely pitched to me harder this year than any of my previous years. It was kind of tough for me at first because I had to be very selective with pitches I swung at,” she said. “They would go through the whole lineup and I’d be the only one to see a change-up. I was leadoff batter, they’d throw four straight balls to me, and they would come back to the next batter with strikes. It was definitely hard not being able to help my team out in the beginning because they weren’t pitching to me.”

McClain still led FIU with a .370 batting average, 57 hits, 37 RBI, 12 doubles and eight home runs. This season, she took the FIU career lead in RBI (161), homers (33) and total bases (415). When this season ends, she’ll try out for the Chicago Bandits of the National Pro Fastpitch Softball League. She expects to come back to FIU as a graduate assistant.

Schumann doesn’t expect the season to end quickly in the Sun Belt tournament, though two players will finish serving two-game suspensions Wednesday for what he termed “violating team policy” on Friday night. (Schumann, no Elia Kazan, wouldn’t name names, but a check of the weekend box scores says the parties are outfielder Alex Casals, a .308 hitter who has started 40 of the 44 games she’s played, and Erika Arcuri, a .226 hitter who has started 35 of her 41).

He figures FIU takes its side of the bracket, then faces down mighty Lafayette. Though each bracket side is double elimination, the championship round is one-game.

Summer session classes require the team will be coming up and back from FAU each day. So, I'll close with my favorite May driving song. Because, especially in May, it's all about finding the right groove...




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