When the Claflin University softball team opens the 2018 season this weekend, they will be experiencing a new role.

In the past, Claflin has been the hunter and not the hunted, as it relates to defending a Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) championship. Now the role is reversed, following last year’s success.

The Lady Panthers, under the direction of Claflin's interim head coach James “Marty” Kinard, captured the program's first-ever SIAC Championship in 2017. Claflin swept through the double-elimination tournament unbeaten, defeating Miles College, 13-5, in the title game.

The accomplishment earned the Lady Panthers an automatic berth into the NCAA Division II Softball Regionals. At regionals, Claflin endured back-to-back losses, falling to host University of West Florida, before being eliminated by Mississippi College, 5-2.

“We had a good season,” Kinard said this preseason. “We accomplished a lot of firsts for the program, like a SIAC championship and participating in the NCAA Division II Regionals. It was a very good year."

Even so, the historic season didn't get the interim label removed from Kinard's title and he sees his team approaching things differently this campaign.

"Every conference team will be gunning for us," he said. "The target will be on our backs, as everybody wants to beat the defending champ.”

“In order for us to be successful this season, we must be a Claflin team that’s better than last year. The conference is much improved this season; the competition is tougher and winning will be more difficult. Before, all you had to do was show up and it was a victory, but that won’t be the case this season. You must play and play hard every night, in order to win.”

A big plus for Kinard will be experience on the diamond, as the second-year coach returns seven starters from last year’s 33-20 team that posted an impressive 17-2 record against SIAC opponents.

The group accounted for 32 home runs, 172 RBIs, 50 doubles and a combined .321 batting averaging.

“I’m excited about our returnees and what they bring to the table,” Kinard said. “We have seven productive starters back and some talented newcomers who should make an immediate impact.

"I think one of the biggest keys for us is staying healthy. We can’t afford any major injuries.”

The offensive leader is senior Tiaria Norman, last year’s SIAC Starting Pitcher of the Year and a 2018 SIAC First Team selection, who batted a sizzling .406 last season with eight home runs and 23 RBIs.

Junior LaKaylin Lee, another power hitter for the Lady Panthers and a SIAC First Team All-Conference performer and 2018 SIAC First Team selection, batted .391 last season with 11 doubles, 10 triples, 5 homers, and 38 RBIs.

Chelise Morman, a junior outfielder, is a 2018 SIAC Preseason selection who had 9 home runs and 34 RBIs a season ago.

Junior infielder Kayla Cato was second on the team last season in runs batted in with 40 to go with a .297 batting average, 13 doubles and 9 home runs. Junior infielder Kaela Robinson posted a .280 batting average with 23 RBIs.

The other returning starters for Claflin include junior utility player Jasmine Squirewell, who started 32 games a year ago, and junior outfielder Jamelah Thomas, who started 21 games last year.

The list of newcomers, all freshmen, includes catcher/outfielder Mercedes Howze, catcher Caitlin Mills (Edisto High School), infielder Jada Ames and outfielder Reagan Hill.

In the pitching department, Norman is the top hurler returning for the Lady Panthers. She posted a 19-7 record last season with a 2.46 ERA and 19 complete games. She worked 165 innings and struck out 202 batters.

Also returning is spot starter Yemaya Rich, who was 3-5 last season in 11 appearances on the mound. She finished the year with a 4.16 ERA.

Claflin opens its season Saturday with a doubleheader in Florence against Peach Belt Conference member Francis Marion, beginning at 1 p.m.

In preparing for SIAC competition, Kinard has assembled a 55-game schedule that includes some very tough non-conference opponents. The non-conference slate consists of six teams from the Peach Belt Conference, highlighted by the University of North Georgia.

UNG claimed the PBC title last season with a 20-4 record and finished the year at 48-13, losing to Armstrong State in the Southeast Super-Regionals. UNG is once again the preseason favorite to capture the Peach Belt Conference title.

Other Peach Belt members on Claflin's schedule include the following: Lander University, Georgia College, Augusta University, and the University of South Carolina at Aiken.

Other non-conference teams the Lady Panthers will face includes Coker College, Newberry College, Tusculum College, Southern Wesleyan University, Limestone College, Fayetteville State University, Queens University of Charlotte, North Greenville University, Bloomfield College and Converse College.

As for the SIAC, Claflin will play five fellow East Division opponents in three-game series and also take part in the annual SIAC Crossover. The crossover will consist of six games against West Division teams over a three-day period Jasper, Ala.

The home-opening contest for the Lady Panthers is Sunday (Feb. 4) against Coker in a doubleheader, starting at noon at Adden Street Park.

The SIAC Conference Tournament is slated for May 3-5 in Albany, Ga.

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