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Friday, November 18, 2016

Auburn Profile: Tigers Look to Continue Rise with Final Step

General Overview/2016 Recap: The Tigers continued their 180-degree turnaround in Myers’ first few seasons in town, advancing their farthest ever in the postseason and cementing their place as one of the nation’s top programs. Relying on an ensemble cast of stars and contributions throughout the season, they beat some of the nation’s best in the circle and came up just short of the national championship trophy.

Player of the Year favorite Kasey Cooper will
have a tall task in front of her to help her team's
offense make up for the loss of several 2016 heavy
hitters. (Photo: Don Martukovich)
The Tigers started the year on an eight-game winning streak, with a loss to James Madison in Clearwater, Florida marking their first entrance into the "L" column. Thirteen of their first twenty-four games ended in a run-rule victory for the Tigers, including seven games that saw them post fourteen or more runs.

A home series loss to Florida opened the conference slate for the Tigers, but Myers' club lost just one of their next fifteen SEC games. The Tigers took a series win over Mississippi State; swept through South Carolina and Kentucky, dotting each series with a run-rule victory; outscored Arkansas an embarassing 54-0 in Fayetteville; and swept Georgia, including another run-rule victory over their future World Series compatriots.

The wheels seemed to fall off the wagon a bit towards the end of conference play. An embarassing series loss to Tennessee in Knoxville included two run-rule losses for the Tigers as they were outscored 22-3 before the final game of the three-game set was cancelled. Texas A&M came to town for the final series of the year and took two of three from the hosting Tigers, leaving Clint Myers' squad in a bit of a tailspin headed to Starkville, Mississippi for the SEC tournament.

The Tigers righted the ship just in time in Starkville, first besting archrival Alabama before sending home Florida in the semifinals and dominating LSU in the championship game en route to their second-consecutive conference tournament title. The Tigers easily scampered through their hosted regional, overcoming a tight game against Jacksonville State to start regional play before effectively stomping USC-Upstate and easily taking control of a rematch with the JSU Gamecocks to advance to the Super Regional round.

Matched up with Mike Candrea's Wildcats to battle for a spot in the World Series, the Tigers lost game one, putting their backs against the wall, and Myers' squad answered, winning a Sunday doubleheader 4-1 and 6-1 to head to Oklahoma City.

The Tigers took almost the easiest path possible to the championship series, beating UCLA on the series' opening night by a score of 10-3, followed by victories over conference rival Georgia and Florida State in an extra-inning semifinal matchup to move to the championship series against Oklahoma. The Sooners beat unlikely game one starter Lexi Davis 3-2 in the first game of the championship series, but a walk-off grand slam capped off a game two slugfest that the Tigers took home by a score of 11-7. That was nearly all of the offense they could muster, though, as the Sooners won a pitcher's duel game three 2-1 to send the Tigers home with the runners-up trophy.
Around the Horn in 2016: (reflects departed players)
P – Kaylee Carlson; Makayla Martin; (Rachael Walters); (Lexi Davis)
C – Carlee Wallace
1B – (Jade Rhodes)
2B – (Emily Carosone)
3B – Kasey Cooper
SS – Whitney Jordan
LF – (Tiffany Howard)
CF – Victoria Draper
RF – Madi Gipson
DP – Haley Fagan
Carrying the Clipboards: Clint Myers has a solid argument as the top active coach in the game - some would say yes, some might say no, but there is no question that his two national titles and complete and utter transformation of two programs from their respective conference cellars to the nation’s best have made him one of the finest softball minds in the game’s history.

When Myers came to Auburn, one of his top reasons for doing so was family. He’s kept that as his mantra since day one, and his sons Corey and Casey make up 2/3 of his core coaching staff. Casey serves as the program’s pitching coach and shepherded five hurlers to sub-4.00 ERAs a season ago, including then-freshman Makayla Martin who posted a 1.57 mark to lead her team.

Longtime assistant Scott Woodard has been a Myers staff member for years, following Clint Myers from Arizona State to Auburn. Woodard serves as the first-base coach and is instrumental in the day-to-day practice and preparation of the team.

Casey Myers returns to the Tiger clubhouse after a single season away; he again fills the Volunteer Assistant Coach role after serving the 2016 campaign on the staff of Major League Baseball’s San Diego Padres. Casey Myers is an underrated offensive mind, and with the departure of several integral offensive powers from a season ago, his returning influence should prove invaluable.

Additions: The Tigers will rely on existing players and eleven incoming freshmen to fill their many holes.
Subtractions: Pitchers Rachael Walters, Lexi Davis, and Marcy Harper all depart from the circle for the Tigers. Walters, the former Radford transfer, leaves the biggest hole as the team's shut-down artist and relief pitcher extraordinaire. The list of absences in the field and at the plate is much deeper and more extensive - three of the squad's top four hitters graduated in 2016, including all-American second baseman Emily Carosone; slugger Jade Rhodes; and defensive wizard and leadoff hitter extraordinaire Tiffany Howard

Though small in stature, with consistent playing time
and a spot in the starting lineup, Carlee Wallace should be
able to manage well the Tigers pitching staff and provide
solid offensive production along the way.
(Photo: Don Martukovich)
Scheduling: The Tigers will face their first test of the year on the season's first day, facing Washington and Oklahoma in a doubleheader on February 9th in the Triple Crown Tournament in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. A matchup against Nebraska in the same tournament will not be a cakewalk, either.

They'll again face 2016 breakout squad James Madison in two games at the Tiger Invitational in Auburn, really their only other major test prior to conference play.

Fellow 2016 WCWS participant LSU comes to Auburn for the opening of conference play, and a midweek, non-conference matchup against Tennessee follows. In SEC play, Clint Myers' squad will also host Ole Miss, Missouri, and Mississippi State, while they'll visit Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama.

Potential Strengths/Weaknesses ---
Strengths – The coaching prowess of Clint Myers has been discussed extensively and talked about some more. That is and will remain the Tigers’ most valuable tool as long as he carries the program reins. All-American slugger and Player of the Year favorite Kasey Cooper, arguably the best player to ever wear an Auburn uniform, returns for her senior season to anchor the offensive lineup and provide some excellent defensive work at the hot corner. Carlee Wallace and Victoria Draper have showed promise, but will have to provide consistent stardom to provide some protection around Cooper in the lineup.
Weaknesses – Seniors graduate each and every year, but rarely does a program lose so many top playmakers in one cap-and-gown ceremony. Their shoes will be extremely difficult to fill. There is no immediately-obvious cleanup hitter to backup Cooper in the lineup; unless someone or a group of someones steps up consistently, it will be easy for opposing teams to pitch around Cooper and give her little opportunity to make a big play at the plate. Myers inexplicably alternated his catchers last season, leaving Carlee Wallace at the DP position in favor of Courtney Shea behind the plate despite the latter’s mishandling of the pitching staff on several occasions and .225 batting average. If Myers will commit to Wallace behind the plate and let her blossom there, he is likely to reap benefits from it.

Outlook for 2017: The Tigers have some holes to fill on offense, but with Cooper in the lineup and Martin and Carlson in the circle, they retain some of their brightest spots from a season ago and should be among the conference’s championship favorites until and unless they play themselves out of such consideration.

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