The North Carolina softball team will be returning to Anderson Softball Stadium in 2023 with a chip on their shoulder.
After amassing three straight losing seasons, seniors like Bri Stubbs will look to lead the team back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2019.
The key to a successful season will be its performance in the circle. The Tar Heels ranked 257th in team earned run average last season, a significant contributor to their 23-28 record.
The leader of this year’s pitching rotation is expected to be sophomore Lilli Backes. As a first-year, she led the team with 31 appearances on the mound but compiled a disappointing 8-14 record and 6.41 ERA.
Despite the up-and-down season, head coach Donna J. Papa expects big things from Backes in 2023.
“Her demeanor on the mound, her mindset and just how she competes, I think will set her apart as she keeps working through the ACC,” Papa said.
With Hannah George, a senior on the 2022 pitching staff, leaving for Michigan as a graduate transfer, the Tar Heels brought in two newcomers to bolster the rotation. First-year Makenna Raye Dark brings a two-way presence to the roster and junior transfer Bailey McCachren from Tennessee brings veteran leadership and SEC experience to an otherwise younger rotation.
“Bailey has been a really great addition,” Backes said. “She has made a huge impact this fall. She is going to do really well this season for us and is going to play a big role in the circle.”
The outfield will see the most stability with Stubbs, redshirt junior Kianna Jones and junior Kiannah Pierce all returning to their familiar positions. All three players hit above .270 and each saw over 100 at bats in 2022. Jones competed on the international scene this offseason, competing for Team Canada at the Pan American Championship. Papa believes the chemistry between the three will be an essential aspect of this year’s defense.
“Everybody says it's the last line of defense and it has to be good,” Papa said. “Having them out there and their voices is, I think, very helpful.”
Stubbs is entering the season as a senior leader of the squad. She started all 51 games as a junior, recording a .355 batting average at the plate and a perfect fielding percentage in center field. With noteworthy 2022 contributors like shortstop Sara Jubas and catcher Taylor Greene now graduated, Stubbs will need to step up into a leadership position this season.
“This team has brought a different fire than any team I’ve seen here at Carolina in my time here,” Stubbs said. “I’m super excited to see the way we can show off to the ACC and all programs this season.”
To build their chemistry as a team, the Tar Heels went on a bonding trip to Lake Norman. During the trip, the players went fishing and kayaking, getting to know each other on a deeper level away from the game. Stubbs said it impacted them greatly and further built their chemistry as a squad.
With a combination of returning stars and new additions, the team hopes its determination and bond will propel it toward a successful 2023. A tough schedule lies ahead, but the Tar Heels have the potential to make noise in the ACC.
“We just want them to go out there and believe in themselves and invest in each other,” Papa said. “Certainly, the other team isn’t going to be nice to you. You have to go out there and just do what you do and do it well.”
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