Now that the frigid days of January are over, and February has begun, it means one thing — the start of the 2019 North Carolina softball season is nearly upon us.
As fans enter Anderson Stadium on opening day, they will notice many new faces, including seven first-years, and an upperclassmen newcomer.
Junior infielder Tainasha Vines may be new to the diamond, but not to North Carolina athletics. Vines, who played multiple sports in high school, previously competed on the UNC indoor and outdoor track and field team for two seasons before deciding to join the softball program for the 2019 campaign.
First-year standout Hannah George will join the North Carolina pitching staff. In high school George went 40-12 as a pitcher, and posted a 0.68 earned run average. She flourished at the plate as well, and set a school record with a .427 career batting average to go along with 23 home runs. After leading her team to three consecutive Class 4A Region-1 Championships, George captured the Georgia High School Softball Association 4A State title in her senior year. Now that George has capped off her high school career with a win, she looks to dominate the competition in the circle for the Tar Heels.
In addition to those new players on the field, fans will notice a brand new face in the dugout. Volunteer assistant coach Nicole Bond is also beginning her first season as a Tar Heel. Bond, a former collegiate pitcher for Northwestern, will coach the pitchers and catchers.
Bond and the eight players are joining a Tar Heel team that finished third in the ACC regular season and won five conference series last season. The team's season ended after a 3-0 loss to Pittsburgh in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament. UNC finished the season with a 30-26 record and a 15-8 mark in conference play.
At the completion of the season, the team also lost two senior infielders, Katelyn Shifflett, and Taylor Wike. With two infielders gone, these newcomers are looking to fill their void.
Despite the team's youth, the Tar Heels are expected to be a threat in the ACC. UNC was voted to win the ACC Coastal Division and finish third in the conference, according to a preseason coaches poll. Junior pitcher Brittany Pickett and senior outfielder Kiani Ramsey were selected to the preseason all-ACC team.
As North Carolina's ace of the pitching staff, Pickett returns to the circle for her junior season with high expectations. Last season, Pickett made 37 starts, and appeared in 51 games for the Tar Heels — her record was 28-12, with a 2.29 ERA. She earned all-ACC first team honors, all-tournament team honors, and was a two-time ACC Pitcher of the Week honoree.
Ramsey, another notable veteran, made her presence known throughout the 2018 season as well. She finished the season with a .374 batting average and a team-best 58 hits. Just like Pickett, Ramsey’s success on the diamond caught the attention of others. She was named an All-ACC second team honoree.
On Feb. 8, UNC will open its season at the Puerto Vallarta College Challenge and take on Baylor. The Tar Heels will also face three other teams: Washington, BYU and South Carolina, marking four games against teams that appeared in the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
A week later, on Feb. 15, the Tar Heels return home to Anderson Stadium and host the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, matching up against Michigan and Northwestern.
The tough competition does not stop there. For the second consecutive season, North Carolina will participate in the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic, and compete against four teams who appeared in the NCAA Tournament, meaning each of the Tar Heels' first 10 games of the season are against 2018 NCAA Tournament teams. North Carolina will compete in its fourth and final tournament, the Carolina Classic, from Feb. 28 to March 2 at Anderson Stadium.
From that point on, the tough slate continues. On March 8, the Tar Heels begin ACC play against rival Duke. Throughout the season, North Carolina will host four ACC series at Anderson Stadium including three games against the reigning NCAA Champion, Florida State, from April 12-15.
Although the UNC softball team will face tough opponents all season long, the mixture of veterans and newcomers will try to power through the competition.