The Arkansas-Monticello softball team will start the 2013 season with a big bulls-eye on its back after being picked to finish first in the Great American Conference, according to the preseason coaches' poll released on Tuesday.

The Arkansas-Monticello softball team will start the 2013 season with a big bulls-eye on its back after being picked to finish first in the Great American Conference, according to the preseason coaches’ poll released on Tuesday.

Last year, the Cotton Blossoms won their eighth regular season championship and the program’s first ever conference tournament championship by defeating Southeastern Oklahoma State 9-2 in the GAC Championship Game in Bentonville.

“There is a lot of talk about defending a championship,” UAM head coach Alvy Early said. “We are looking at this year as just another championship.

“We are trying to win another one, but this season is totally separate from the past.”

Early said he is proud of last season, but “this is a different team and a different year.”

The Cotton Blossoms received four of the eight first place votes for a total of 43 poll votes. The Blossoms return 10 lettermen from last season, including four all-conference honorees.

“We probably have more players coming back than people think we do,” Early said. “We did lose three significant players in Kayla Jackson, Jennifer Hickman and Katie Bowen.”

Jackson was the league’s pitcher of the year and earned first-team all-conference honors after leading the league in wins (27), earned run average (1.13), strikeouts (164), and opponent batting average (.171).

She also ranked in the top 20 of seven different offensive categories including the league’s top runs batted in with 40.

Jackson was also named the Female Athlete of the Year in the GAC after finishing with a 31-6 record, a 1.07 earned run average, 26 complete games, 10 shutouts and two no-hitters.

Offensively, Jackson was tied for the league’s home run title with 11, led the league with 42 RBIs and ranked third in slugging percentage (.632), third in on-base percentage (.453), third in hits (61) and second in total bases (103).

Despite a 40-14 record and two conference championships, the selection committee and the NCAA left UAM out of the South Central Regional.

Normally, a conference champion would earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, but as a new conference, the GAC does not have an automatic qualifier for the tournament.

Early was named GAC coach of the year after leading UAM to its 15th winning season in program history and its 14th season of at least 30 wins. In his 16 years as head coach, Early has a career record of 594-290-2.

Key returners this year for the Cotton Blossoms include catcher Brittany Eitel, Maggie Sands and Beth Johnson.

Eitel finished last season with a batting average of .319 with 45 hits, seven doubles, three home runs and 19 RBIs. She also had 21 runs scored and 20 walks.

Sands earned all-conference honors after finishing the year with a .345 average. She had 51 hits, 26 runs scored, six doubles, 21 RBIs and 14 walks.

Johnson, UAM’s centerfielder, earned all-conference honors after finishing the year with a batting average of .297. She tallied 47 hits, 27 runs scored, seven doubles, three home runs, 17 RBIs and 10 walks.

Also returning this season for the Cotton Blossoms is GAC freshman of the year Sarah Matthews. She finished last year with a batting average of .346 with 46 hits, six doubles, five home runs and 28 RBI.

“I think our defense will be pretty solid,” Early said. “Traditionally, we have been one of the top hitting teams.

“We don’t have a short game. We swing the bat and hit the ball hard and it works for us.”

One of the concerns for UAM this season will be their pitching.

“Everything comes down to pitching in softball,” Early said. “You don’t get the same pitching every time, sometime control is off.

“Hopefully, our pitching is strong enough to keep us in contention.”

After missing the entire 2012 season with a torn ACL, Randa Perry returns to the circle for UAM.

“She has looked good to this point,” Early said.

In 2011, Perry was 6-1 in 14 game appearances and had an ERA of 2.30 in 45 innings of work. She allowed 24 runs (15 earned) on 38 hits with 37 strikeouts and eight walks.

Katie Slaughter returns after struggling with some inconsistency last season.

“Sometimes she could throw a three-hit shutout, and then the next time she couldn’t get out of the first inning,” Early said. “But I think she has gotten more mature and is throwing the ball better.”

Last season, Slaughter finished with a 9-8 record in 27 game appearances. She had an ERA of 3.37 in 106 innings of work. She gave up 55 runs (51 earned) on 116 hits with 66 strikeouts and nine walks.

Junior Cortney Wilson, who transferred from Shelton State Community College in Missouri, is expected to give a boost to the pitching staff. Early said Wilson “throws the ball hard but needs more improvement.”

UAM will host the Hampton Inn Classic on Saturday and Sunday to open the season. UAM will face Cameron University on Saturday at 11 a.m. and Washburn University at 1 p.m. On Sunday, UAM plays Newman at 11 a.m. and will play Cameron again at 1 p.m.