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Rutgers opens season with 5 game weekend in Florida

<p>Sophomore first baseman Rebecca Hall is one of several hitters expected to produce at the plate to help fill in the gap left by recently graduated Jackie Bates.</p>

Sophomore first baseman Rebecca Hall is one of several hitters expected to produce at the plate to help fill in the gap left by recently graduated Jackie Bates.

So it begins.

While it may not seem like it with snow splattered across Piscataway, softball season begins Friday in the Sunshine State for the Rutgers softball team.

The Scarlet Knights steps back onto the diamond Friday to begin its 2016 campaign. The Knights will play five contests this weekend in Orlando, Florida.

The team will compete against James Madison and Central Florida on Friday. 

The Knights will resume play at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday with a matchup featuring Fordham and then battle with Alabama later in the afternoon at 12 p.m.

Rutgers will finish the road trip by playing in matinee action on Sunday against James Madison.

The Knights have a lot of experience on the field, the majority of their starters currently upperclassmen.

“We have a veteran infield,” said head coach Jay Nelson. “We have a senior at third, a senior a shortstop, a senior at second base, a senior behind the plate. So, that experience will help us defensively and offensively as well.”

Offensively, the squad from Piscataway boasts a number of solid hitters.

Sophomore first baseman Rebecca Hall hit for a .321 average with six home runs and 25 RBI as a freshman. Fellow sophomore Sierra Maddox also hit for power last season, hitting five home runs with 19 RBI and a .329 batting average.

“We have a number of players that hit over .300,” Nelson said. “We had two freshman hit, we had Sierra hit five home runs and Becca hit six and even Jackie (Bates) didn’t hit that many her freshman year so hopefully with their progression, we’ll be picking up the offensive numbers.”

Rutgers will be playing some very talented opponents right off the bat to begin its season. The Knights will play three top-20 squads this weekend.

No. 19 James Madison went 48-10 last season and went a perfect 19-0 in the Colonial Athletic Association. Senior catcher Erica Field led her team in batting average at .429 and RBI with 62 as a junior a season ago.

No. 17 UCF played to a 50-9 record and went 16-2 in the American Athletic Conference. Junior outfielder Linnea Goodman hit .356 with 19 RBI as a sophomore. Senior pitcher Shelby Turnier earned 25 victories to just eight losses as a junior with a 0.87 ERA and 268 strikeouts.

Senior outfielder Haylie McCleney slugged eight home runs and 47 RBI while compiling a .436 batting average for the Crimson Tide as a junior. No. 5 Alabama was 48-15 overall in 2015 with a 17-7 record in the Southeastern Conference.

In the Atlantic 10 conference, the Fordham Rams earned a 17-5 in conference record while going 38-20 overall. Junior infielder Amy Van Hoven started in all 56 games the Rams played as a sophomore. She hit .384 with 25 RBI.

“Yeah, I mean that’s what it’s all about,” said senior pitcher Dresden Maddox. “We played some great teams last year, but I think this year is gonna be a lot of fun. This is everything that I mean, people dream of when they get to come to college and play softball so it’s not any different for me. I want to go out there and play the best of the best.”

Maddox is set to be the Knights’ number one starter entering the 2016 campaign. 

In 2015, the Kennesaw, Georgia, native pitched to a 6.28 ERA and struck out 63 batters in 25 appearances. Maddox had an 8-6 record last year.

“The whole thing about pitching is that you wanna start ahead and stay ahead,” Maddox said. “I just wanna start ahead on batters ... having good innings early on and hopefully that momentum carries through throughout the entire weekend.”

Senior catcher Elizabeth Adams will be one of her team’s main leaders and contributors in 2016. 

Last year, Adams hit .213 with three home runs and 37 RBI in 47 games played. Her defense behind the plate, along with her good receiving skills and strong throwing arm, will be key in guiding her team this season.

“We worked on our game a lot,” Adams said on her team’s offseason workouts. “Offense and defense, all aspects, whatever we’re looking to come up against, but we’re just mostly focusing to play our game rather than catering to what our opponents are gonna do.”

For updates on the Rutgers softball team, follow @EvanCBruno and @TargumSports on Twitter.

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