Jan. 21, 2004
Vowing to put last season behind them, the Utes are looking ahead to a great season of softball. If the fall is any indication, Utah expects to find success both offensively and defensively. However, the key to triumph for the team will be finding the combination of chemistry and consistency.
Last year marked just the fifth losing season overall since Utah softball's introduction in 1976. Utah concluded last year with a 20-27 overall record and a 7-9 conference record. It finished fourth during the regular-season and fifth in the conference tournament after back-to-back losses to New Mexico and Brigham Young. In defense of the Utes, they lost 14 outings to inclement weather. Of those fourteen games, seven were to be played at home. Utah hasn't faced conference foes UNLV and San Diego State at home in two years because of poor weather.
"It was one of the most disappointing seasons I've had, and I'm sure every player would agree with that statement. We just never got into a flow," says Head Coach Mona Stevens. "We couldn't get a consistency going to help get out the kinks. Part of that was the weather and the other part was the amount of traveling we did. We just never could get our team chemistry right to get on the right foot."
Stevens spins a very different perspective on this season following a successful fall that included victories over powers Washington and Nebraska. "Our chemistry appears to be there and so do the ingredients we've been missing," notes Stevens. "This is the first time in a long time I've seen the upper classmen as excited for a season as this group is."
With the athletes full of excitement, it must also be noted that the coaching staff is also ready to play ball. Stevens, who is in her eighth season at the helm of the Utah program, is ready to get the Utes back to their winning ways. She understands the tradition of Utah softball as well as anybody, having played for the Utes and served as an assistant coach during the 1980's.
Assisting Stevens this year will be Marianne Bullis and Kelly Ferguson. Bullis, who played for Stevens during the late 1990's, is back for her second season as an assistant coach. Ferguson joins the Utes as an assistant coach this year. She played at Texas A&M, where she was an all-conference infielder for former Utah coach Jo Evans.
Below is a position-by-position breakdown of the Utes.
A lot of the excitement for the season stems from the depth Utah possesses in the battery. Returning are senior Heather Bowlin and sophomore Brianna Gourdin. Newcomers to Utah are California prep standouts Melissa Oakes and Samantha Schroeder.
"This is the deepest battery we've had since I've been at Utah. We have four pitchers who all throw very differently. That makes up quite an arsenal," Stevens explains. "The pressure will not be on one person since there are four to work with. This will also take pressure off the defense as well."
Last season Bowlin was named MWC Pitcher of the Week twice. "Heather has developed into a great leader and her experience is really showing itself," notes Stevens. "These two elements will help out our pitching staff greatly."
Last year, Gourdin made 12 appearances, while compiling a 2.65 ERA. "Brianna is healthy this year, which should help her make the freshman to sophomore transition successfully. She has increased her strength and has increased her movement and command of the ball. These things will help her see more time this year," points out Stevens.
Oakes joins the Utes after a stellar high school career. The freshman recorded a 1.24 ERA during her prep career. "Melissa could become a franchise player for us. She has a nasty drop ball and will compliment the other pitchers very well. She is also a good hitter," Stevens explains.
Schroeder and Oakes have a lot more in common than both being freshmen. Just likes Oakes, Schroeder also notched an impressive prep career, which includes leading her team to the California Interscholastic Federation Championship in 2002. Schroeder is imposing on the mound because of her 6-1 frame. "Sam joins us after a very successful 18-and-under club career," says Stevens. "She has good command of her pitches and an incredible work ethic which will make her effective."
With the strength in the circle, the Utah defense should find more success this year. Last season, the Utes led the league with 87 errors, while posting the lowest team fielding percentage of .942. "We have three returning infielders and our new infielder at first base (Ivette Hernandez) is very good. Combining the infielders experience with the strength of the pitching staff should provide for a great defensive effort," points out Stevens.
Senior Melissa Stahnke returns at third, while fellow senior Glennis Donnelly and sophomore Jackie Wong comprise arguably the best all-around middle infield in the league. Donnelly earned all-league honors last year.
"We really struggled last season, mostly because it was Melissa's (Stahnke) first season at third and because Glennis and Jackie were new," admits Stevens. Before last year, Stahnke had been the Utes' shortstop.
The biggest loss the Utes will have to overcome from last year is the graduation of first baseman Niki Hayhurst. Hayhurst, a four-time all-conference and two-time all-region performer, compiled the third-best career batting average at Utah (.343). She was a staple in the field and at the plate during her time as a Ute.
Two catchers will likely split time for Utah this year. Returning is junior Bryanne Durrence, who started all but one game at catcher last season. "Bryanne is a good pitcher's catcher because of her knowledge of the various pitches," points out Stevens. "She works well with all of our pitchers."
Joining Utah this year is Kate Nygaard, who transferred from Salt Lake Community College. "Kate has one of the strongest arms I've ever seen on a catcher. She is also a powerful hitter," says Stevens.
Moving outward, the Ute outfield is also expected to find success. One starter returns in Lynsey Wall, while two others return in Sarah Lyman and Texie Criddle, who split playing time. Freshman Devina Quintero is also likely to get innings in the outfield. "We really have four outfielders who can contribute to our lineup this year-they can hit the ball and play defense," adds Stevens.
Wall made the move from catcher to outfield last season look easy. She committed just two errors, while making several diving nabs. Her efforts earned her all-league honors for her debut season.
There are four athletes who can fill in wherever needed for Utah this year. Returning are junior Lauren Field and sophomore Jenni Thurston. Field, who is also a member of the Utah soccer team, is the speedster of the Utes. Last season she swiped seven bases before being forced to sit out the remainder of the year due to a heart condition. "Lauren is one of the fastest people I know. She's deadly on the bases," Stevens claims.
Thurston will also see chances as a pinch runner. She appeared in eight games last year. "JT is the smartest kid on the team. She's a hard worker in the classroom and on the field," admits Stevens.
New to Utah this year are sophomore Amy Alvord and freshman Chelsea Steinbach. Alvord, who hails from Idaho, will primarily be used as a pinch runner. "Amy brings a great spunkiness to the team," says Stevens. Steinbach joins the Utes after playing for Park City High School in Utah. "We're going to try and get Chelsea time in the box because she has a great eye for the ball," points out Stevens.
AT THE PLATE
Already compiling a tough defensive attack, the Utes look to add offensive power to the mix. If things work out as predicted, Utah could boast a lineup with very few weaknesses. Key returnees to the offense are all-conference performers Donnelly and Wall. Donnelly finished third on the team with a .281 batting average, while ranking second in doubles (10) and RBI (27). Wall was impressive as a freshman, notching a .269 batting average with a team-high 29 RBI.
Also back are Hernandez and Ute career home run leader (44) Stahnke. Hernandez posted the second-best batting average on the team last year at .330.
Though her numbers were down from previous seasons, the two-time all-league performer Stahnke still tied for the team lead with 29 RBI last year. The senior needs 34 RBI to break the Utah career record currently held by Cyndee Bennett (175).
Utah looks to use the offensive force to improve on its .262 team batting average, which was third-best in the league last year. Stevens' idea of consistency comes into play when discussing the Utes' batting average last season. Utah notched a .246 average during non-conference games, compared to a much higher .292 average during league play.
With almost everything in place for the Utes to succeed this season, there will be one more roadblock in the way. The Utes once again have the toughest schedule of any team in the league. On Utah's platter are five World Series teams, seven NFCA Final Top 30 poll teams and 17 NCAA Tournament teams from a season ago. Last year, the Utes struggled against the ranked teams, defeating one of just eight.
"We really feel like we have a more balanced schedule this year. In previous years, we've started out of the gate facing tough teams in all of our tournaments. We've eased up on our schedule to help with the fatigue factor. But, the difficult games we have will still help us get ready for conference play," notes Stevens.
The Mountain West Conference looks to be very tough this year. San Diego State, Brigham Young and Colorado State return a lot of key players from a season ago. UNLV enters the year with a new coach at the helm, while New Mexico looks to be an up-and-coming program under a second-year head coach.
Something to keep in mind is that the Utes are the only team in the league to have a .500 or better record against all five other conference members. "We are a young team and it is unknown at this point where we will fit into the conference race," mentions Stevens, "but we are hopeful to regain the conference crown."