UNC softball starts season at LSU

The No. 22 North Carolina softball team will play five games in three days to open the regular season this weekend at the Tiger Classic in Baton Rouge, La.

Coach Donna Papa said she believes her players are ready, but she also knows that the switch from preseason practices to games can take a toll on the players.

“It’s the same for everybody, which is a good thing,” Papa said. “But it’s hard.”

She said the pitchers will have the roughest transition, because they’ve been held to pitching four innings at most in the preseason blue-white scrimmages.

The Tar Heel bullpen is full of returning pitchers, among them junior Lori Spingola, the 2012 ACC Pitcher of the year, and only one freshman.

In August, assistant coach Tony Baldwin joined the Tar Heel staff after two years at the University of Georgia. Baldwin primarily serves as a hitting and infield coach, and players have already noticed improvement under his tutelage.

“He’s given us a whole different outlook,” senior infielder Haleigh Dickey said. “He’s really helped us as far as our offensive game goes. I think we’ve improved that a ton.”

The improvements have led to higher expectations within the team for the 2013 season. North Carolina lost to Georgia in the regional round of the NCAA Tournament last season, leaving the players and coaches wanting more.

“We want to take that next big step, which is super-regionals,” Papa said. “We want to be better than we were last year. Good is the enemy of great.”

In the ACC preseason coaches’ poll, UNC was selected to finish first, which Papa has mixed feelings about.

“We’re predicted to finish first — that’s a big target now on our back,” Papa said. “I like the underdog role of climbing up and sneaking up on people. It’s nice that the coaches feel that way, but everybody says it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”

While the Tar Heels seem intent on finishing strong, they face a tough challenge early in the season, playing No. 10 Louisiana State twice this weekend. But the players aren’t worried.

“I feel like this year is the year it’s going to happen,” junior outfielder Amy Nece said. “I think everyone’s on the same page. We’re ready to take on all challenges and prove to everyone out there that we’re the team to beat.”

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