BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – After consecutive seasons without postseason play, Jackson State heads into the 2018 season looking to reverse its fortunes and return to the level of championship contender.
For third-year coach Darnell Walker, perhaps the most significant factor in the Lady Tigers’ success this season lies in the avoidance of sophomore slumps. With several newcomers receiving extended playing time, Jackson State saw some growing pains, but also flashes of potential cornerstones that can lead the team back to prominence in the SWAC Eastern Division.
Although Jackson State’s core is a sophomore-heavy unit whose best days may lie ahead, the Lady Tigers are planning to win now. With this in mind, the team looks to junior first baseman Alexis Hansard as one of the team’s leaders in the dugout and on the field.
Hansard hit .291 with 30 hits, 24 RBI and two home runs, but also missed nearly one-fourth of the team’s games. A full season of health might be what Hansard needs to insert herself in the conversation of the league’s top run-producing bats.
After a strong freshman campaign, sophomore centerfielder Cheyenne Aplon projects as the team’s best all-around offensive player. The top returning bat in the Lady Tigers’ lineup – as evidenced by her .333 batting average, 36 hits, 32 runs scored, 21 RBI, seven triples and three home runs – Aplon has the potential to emerge as a Hitter of the Year candidate for Jackson State, who won’t return its leading power hitter.
Fellow sophomores like utility infielder Sierra Smith (.282 BA, 20 H, 10 R, 5 2B), outfielder Jalicia Hughes (.244 BA, 20 H, 11 R, 11 SB), and catcher/outfielder Kaitlyn Elzie (.253 BA, 21 H, 14 R, 7 RBI) can also pay dividends provided there’s an uptick in their production.
There may be some questions for JSU inside the circle, though leading arm Symone Williams (4-14, 5.98 ERA, 49 K, 125.1 IP) returns. As she looks to improve on her numbers from her freshman season, projected No. 2 pitcher Ashley Sain will also have to make considerable strides in year two.
If Sain and Williams can provide some consistency for a Lady Tigers team that does have the makings of a solid offensive unit, Jackson State may be able to do some damage within the league.
Jackson State opens the 2018 season Feb. 9 as it hosts the Lady Tigers Invitational in Jackson, Miss. JSU will go against Lane College at 4 p.m. to open its tournament play.