February 5, 2011 9:39:00 PM
STARKVILLE -- Chelsea Bramlett was the face of Mississippi State''s softball team for the past four years.
The catcher re-wrote MSU''s record book and led the team in batting average (..536), stolen bases (61), hits (98), and runs (56) last season.
An All-American and United States National Team member, Bramlett''s service to the Bulldogs will be hard to match.
MSU coach Jay Miller hopes his players -- especially catchers Chelsea Raines and Sam Lenahan -- understand that.
"Sam is a freshman and never played with Chelsea, though she knows her honors and awards," Miller said, "so it really hasn''t been a big factor. That''s kind of been our goal for the entire team."
Lenahan appears to have a lead on Raines for the opening day start when MSU kicks off its season against Illinois-Chicago on Feb. 11 in Las Vegas.
Miller was impressed with Lenahan''s offensive production in the fall and how she has handled the team''s five pitchers. Junior pitcher Misty Flesher said Lenahan and Raines have communicated well together and with the pitching staff. More important, she said there is a lack of animosity between Raines, a senior, and Lenahan, a first-year player.
"When you think of battling for a position, the whole mentality is different," Flesher said. "We understand all we need to do is win. Whatever we need to do to get there is what needs to be done. It was very interesting to watch everybody because we all helped each other and tried to make each other better. There wasn''t any jealousy issues going on. It was like that at every position."
Flesher hopes to return to the form that saw her win 20 games as a freshman before being sidelined with a torn labrum as a sophomore. The redshirt junior led MSU in innings pitched and wins (12) last year, but said she is back to 100 percent and is confident entering her first season without Bramlett behind the plate.
"My arm feels better than it has in years, and my velocity is increasing the longer I stay in the game," Flesher said. "Our catchers are doing a great job, too. But again, we''re all giving each other a lot of support. They''ll never feel like they have to do too much."
MSU went 26-29 last season and 7-20 in the SEC. It failed to qualify for the eight-team postseason tournament. This season, the University of Mississippi will serve as the host for the tournament, which will be May 12-14.
The Bulldogs will have to improve across the board if they want to get back to the tournament. Flesher''s ERA of 4.16 was the best on a team whose ERA (4.53) was 11th in the SEC.
MSU also had only one other regular other than Bramlett hit better than .300 (Kaili Smith, .326 with 10 home runs and 50 RBIs).
Last month, MSU and Ole Miss were picked to finish fifth and sixth in the SEC''s Western Division in the coaches'' preseason poll. Neither team had a player picked to the preseason all-league team.
Bramlett''s offense was just as critical as her defense. As the team''s leadoff hitter, Bramlett was a threat to turn singles into doubles.
Miller anticipates senior outfielder Brittany Bell taking over the leadoff spot. Bell is a right-handed hitter and provides a different dimension than Bramlett, a slap-hitter who relied on placed hits to reach base.
Bell hit .295 last year and was second on the team with 27 RBIs. She stole 13 bases and had a .416 on-base percentage.
"You don''t replace a player that hit .540 and did all the things Chelsea did," Miller said. "I like the way we swing the bats, and I think we''ll be able to generate runs and help our pitchers. We only lost Chelsea and Jessie Bailey from last year, so most of our offense is back."
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