MONTICELLO, Ark. (UAM) - After capturing the inaugural Great American Conference regular season and tournament championships in the 2012 season, the University of Arkansas at Monticello softball team has been picked to finish first again this year, according to the preseason coaches' poll released by the conference office on Tuesday.
The Cotton Blossoms received four of the eight first place votes for a total of 43 poll points following a 40-14 season last year with a 21-5 record in conference games. The Blossoms return 10 lettermen from last season, including four all-conference honorees.
Following UAM in the preseason coaches' poll is Southeastern Oklahoma State University with 39 poll points and two first place votes. Southeastern finished second in the regular season last year behind UAM, and lost to the Blossoms in the conference tournament championship game by a final score of 9-2.
East Central will start the season ranked third in the league after receiving 35 poll points. Southwestern Oklahoma State (34) and Southern Arkansas (30) are fourth and fifth in the preseason poll, respectively. SWOSU and SAU accounted for the final first place votes.
Henderson State follows in sixth place with 17 poll points, while Arkansas Tech and Ouachita Baptist tied for seventh with 13 poll points each.
"I appreciate the respect the other coaches have given our program to make us the preseason favorite," said Early. "But, it's not about where you start the year; it's where you wind up at the end... We'll try to do the best we can and defend that championship taking it one game at a time."
Highlighting UAM's returners is sophomore third baseman Sara Matthews, who was a first-team All-GAC pick last season and was named the 2012 GAC Freshman of the Year. Maggie Sands returns for her senior season after being named a first team all-conference honoree last year.
Other returning all-conference honorees include junior catcher Brittany Eitel and junior outfielder Beth Johnson, both earning all-conference honorable mention accolades for their efforts during the 2012 season.
"I'm anxious to get us on the field in competition to see what we look like," said head coach Alvy Early. "Obviously, in the first few games, we will really get a good look to find areas we will need to work on for the rest of the season... I think we'll be solid defensively, and I expect us to continue to be able hit well, but as with all teams, it's going to come down to what kind of pitching you get... Our expectations are high, and I've been pleased with what I've seen the few times we've been able to scrimmage."
The Cotton Blossoms open the 2013 season this Saturday and Sunday, February 2-3 at home in the UAM Hampton Inn Classic. UAM hosts Cameron University on Saturday at 11 a.m. and follows with Washburn University at approximately 1 p.m. On Sunday, UAM plays Newman at 11 a.m. and will face Cameron for the second time at 1 p.m. All games with the exception of Saturday's game against Washburn will be covered with live stats and live video at uamsports.com.