Niki Hayhurst is one of three seniors on this year's team.
Jan. 22, 2003
The Utes began their 2002 campaign for a solid month on the road to avoid the 2002 Winter Olympic traffic. A tough start by Utah (30-36, 10-4 MWC), which included a 7-19 record in February, was culminated by an excellent second-half effort. The Utes went on to win the Mountain West Conference Tournament Championship, led by tourney MVP Jen Pursell, en route to their 10th NCAA Tournament appearance. Four Utes garnered all-MWC honors, including Melissa Stahnke, Lyndsey Trevis, Niki Hayhurst and Molly McLean, while seven were named to the academic all-conference team. McLean and Stahnke also received all-west region honors and Verizon Academic All-America District VIII honors.
Looking ahead to the 2003 season, the Utes are anxious to build off the momentum from the second half of last year. "When you have the bats of Melissa, Niki and the determination of Masie Ota, and you add a talented newcomer class to the mix, your offense is going to be very strong," claims Head Coach Mona Stevens.
Skimming over the Utes' strengths for the upcoming season, offense seems to stand out the most. "Offensively we are never going to be an easy out, from the top to the bottom of the order," boasts Stevens. "The difference between this team and those from the past couple seasons, is that we are very athletic and quick. This will enable us to score a lot of runs." The combination of Stahnke and Hayhurst, arguably the conference's best three-four punch, will lead the Utes' run attack.
Despite the robust offense, don't think for one minute the Utes are a one-dimensional team. Utah offers a tough defense to compliment its offense. "This is the best defense we've had in a couple years," admits Stevens. "Having the defense behind them will help our pitchers relax and throw strong innings."
Stevens is eager to discuss the team's potential because of the stellar fall the Utes had. "This team has a lot of fire and is a very cohesive as a unit. They've also developed a chemistry already, which is key for a team to be successful."
Below is a position-by-position breakdown of the 2003 Utes.
Two starters return from last year's pitching staff, which finished fifth in the conference with a 3.87 ERA. Most of the Utes' struggles came at the first of the season, but were overcome during a tremendous second-half run.
The senior Pursell garnered conference tournament MVP honors after leading the Utes to the tournament title. She threw 236.2 innings for the Utes last season while holding opponents to a .271 batting average. The Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., native has proven to be the Utes' leader in the battery, and now with a season under her belt, has the experience to produce a great year. "Jen is one of the most knowledgeable pitchers I've known. She handles situations so well, especially when the heat is on her," says Stevens. "JP had a great fall, and if she stays healthy, I look for her to have a great spring."
Junior Heather Bowlin fashioned a good season for the Utes last year. The Lee's Summit, Mo., native posted a 2.87 ERA while recording 108 strikeouts in 195.1 innings. Bowlin didn't see much action this fall since she was recovering from shoulder surgery. "Heather is healthy now and I'm very pleased with her workouts," Stevens notes. "She has good control, spin and pop on the ball. I'm anticipating Heather to have an even better season than last year.
Brianna Gourdin is the newcomer to the pitching mix. Gourdin, from Pleasant Grove, Utah, was an all-state prep pitcher. "Brianna has great fundamentals and is a very hard worker," Stevens admits. "She's going to be able to throw hitters off and contribute to the success of our battery." Catchers
Stevens is excited about possessing two talented players at the catcher position. Sophomore Bryanne Durrence is expected to start for the Utes, with freshman Lynsey Wall grabbing time off the bench. Durrence saw playing time last season for Utah, but was limited after suffering a concussion midway through the year. "Bryanne knows the intricacies of pitching fundamentals and that makes her very bright behind the plate. She is solid defensively, very athletic and a great split-second decision maker," says Stevens.
"Lynsey is fundamentally sound as a defensive catcher. She is also good offensively. She had fine workouts and a good fall so we may try to even play her in the outfield because she is one of our better hitters," says Stevens.
Leading the infield will be the senior first baseman Hayhurst. Hayhurst, a three-time all-MWC honoree and the 2000 MWC Freshman of the Year brings a powerful bat and strong defense to the game. Last season, the Keizer, Ore., native led the team with 16 doubles, was second with seven dingers and fourth with a .293 batting average. Hayhurst also boasted a stellar .983 fielding percentage. "Niki is a nucleus for this team," says Stevens. "She is a very experienced first baseman and guides the right side of the infield. She is a tremendous hitter, with a huge heart, leading me to believe she will shine during her senior season."
California prep standout Ivette Hernandez is expected to back up Hayhurst while also seeing a lot of innings as the designated player. The Sylmar, Calif., native produced a career batting average over .450. She was a four-time all-league and all-California Interscholastic Federation player, while also being named the 2002 CIF Player of the Year. "Ivette was a great find for us. She is a great hitter and is very athletic. We're going to find a way to get her in the game so she can get at bats. She is very aggressive at the plate, but may need a little more time to adjust to the 43-foot distance," Stevens states.
At second base, another freshman is expected to make her mark for the Utes. Jackie Wong, from Antioch, Calif., brings an aggressive and solid defensive style to Utah. The newcomer also offers maturity beyond most freshmen Stevens has seen. "Jackie is one of those players you look at and think, she'll be ok. Then she goes and exceeds all of your expectations," Stevens admits. "Nobody will ever know she is our youngest player in the infield because of her maturity and knowledge for the game. She's a lefty slapper, who will probably end up leading off for us."
Utah's new career home run leader and biggest offensive threat, Stahnke has moved from the shortstop position to third base this year. Stevens expects the move to allow the junior to prove how good of a defensive player she is. Stevens admits that Stahnke's offensive abilities overshadow her strong defense. "Melissa is one of the best hitters I've ever coached and the most prolific hitter Utah has ever had. "The amazing thing is that she swung the bat better during the fall season than she ever has. Since Melissa has already broken the home run record and hit over .300 each season she's been here, I'm hoping she'll relax and realize how good she can be."
The number six spot belongs to another newcomer. Junior Glennis Donnelly transfers in after playing at Meremac Junior College in St. Louis, Mo. At Meremac, Donnelly was a two-time All-American in both softball and soccer. The Missouri native also boasted a career batting average near the .500 mark. "Glennis has great hands and raw athletic ability," says Stevens. "She is a complete and aggressive player that is always an offensive threat. Another plus about Glennis is that she is very good at controlling the atmosphere of the game and drawing her teammates together."
Starting in left field for Utah will be senior Traci Keller. Keller is a tremendous outfielder, who possesses amazing speed. "Traci has great instincts and a great first step to the ball. She makes it look easy because she moves and tracks so well. We're very confident if the ball is in her area because she'll catch it if she can get a glove on it," Stevens says. "Traci had a rough start offensively last year but came on in the final half of the season, knocking in several game-winning runs. We expect her to pick up from last year and produce an even better offensive season."
The core of the outfield doesn't have a set starter, yet. But battling for the spot are two talented players in sophomore Texie Criddle and freshman Sarah Lyman. "We are toying between the two and will have to wait and see who is the best fit and who beats out whom," admits Stevens. "Both players will likely see time in center and possibly in left since Traci graduates at the end of the year. Since both players are good, a lot will depend on which one rises above the other."
Criddle, who backed up all-conference player Molly McLean last season, has the better bat of the two. "Texie is a lefty slapper and is strong offensively," says Stevens. Lyman is a true lefty and more solid defensively. "Sarah is very quick, knows how to move to the ball and has great instincts," states Stevens. "She is going to become a whole player in time and has already shown us tremendous strides during her workouts."
The lefty slapper Ota will start in right field for Utah. Ota, a junior, wrapped up last season with a .286 batting average to go with seven stolen bases. "Masie is the most consistent competitor on our team. She is mentally and emotionally ready to play each game," admits Stevens.
Freshman Jenni Thurston is an all-around player the Utes will look to. Thurston, who played shortstop in high school, trained in the outfield during the fall season to improve her game. "Jenni is a good athlete and an amazing human being," tells Stevens. "She is balancing an impressive academic pursuit with athletics. We are going to work with Jenni and push her to what she is capable of. She could be pushing for a starting role in future years."
Sophomore Lauren Field is the speed of the team. Field, who also plays for the Utah soccer team, will solely run the bases for Utah. "Our goal is to score her whenever she's in the game. Her goal is to steal bases and score because she's aggressive and wants to run. She's so fast and fun to watch," says Stevens.
Scanning the Utes' lineup, one can see this 2003 squad is full of talent. "The experience of our veterans and excitement of our newcomers creates a recipe for success," says Stevens.
After performing well during the fall season, the Utes will take to the road for five tough tournaments to begin regular season play. The Utes kick off their season against Pac 10 and Big 12 teams in Tucson, Ariz., at the Arizona State Tournament. Next on the platter is the UNLV Tourney, which includes a battle with softball powerhouse UCLA. After stopping in Santa Barbara, Calif., at the Santa Barbara Tourney, Utah will host its own tournament (the U of U Red Desert Classic) in St. George, Utah. Finally, stops at the Florida State, Pacific and Sacramento State Tournaments will wrap up the Utes' non-conference schedule. "These tournaments will push us right off the bat," notes Stevens.
The Utes open conference play on March 29 against in-state rival Brigham Young in Provo, Utah. Stevens is quick to admit the conference title is up for grabs this year. "Don't count us out of winning the league title, even though we lost five key players. We are stronger offensively and defensively than we've been over the past couple of seasons," she says.
Running through the MWC, Stevens knows the conference will be better all-around from last year. San Diego State, last year's conference champion, and Brigham Young should battle the Utes for the league title.