Last season, big things were expected of the UMBC softball team, which returned all but one starter from the previous year’s squad, which led the league in offense. But the Retrievers got off to a slow start to America East play, opening the conference slate with a 1-5 record, and never recovered, finishing in sixth place at 6-12.
With the graduation of all-conference first-team members Amanda Fefel and Emily Thompson, along with their 105 combined hits, 21 home runs and 55 RBI, America East coaches have made it clear that they believe the Retrievers will struggle again this season, picking them to finish sixth in the conference’s preseason poll.
And that’s just how 10th-year head coach Joe French likes it.
“We definitely lost a lot of fire power,” French said. “But I like being picked sixth. I think (the other coaches) looked at the kids we lost and thought, ‘wow did they take a hit,’ but it’s the next group’s time to take over and step up and become the next core.”
French has brought in a large incoming class with the ability to make an immediate impact. One of those newcomers is junior Katie Ferguson, the 2010 Maryland Junior College Player of the Year and a third-team NJCAA All-American from Cecil Community College. Ferguson will likely start at first base after batting .457 with nine home runs last season.
“Katie’s got great hands, a good arm, good footwork at the bag,” French said. “She’ll do a very good job for us.”
French once again boasts a versatile roster with a number of players who can play several positions. Ferguson is one of those players, so when she is elsewhere on the field, second-team all-conference selection Lauren O'Malley, a senior team captain, and junior Angela Yannone will see time at first base.
Senior captain Lauren Brummell will again man second base. Brummell batted a respectable .286 with 17 extra-base hits last season, but French looks for her to the form of her sophomore campaign, when she batted .368 with a team-high 63 hits, including a school-record 20 doubles.
“L.B. looks great,” the coach said. “She’s in good shape, and she knows this is her last time through, so I think she’s going to have a real nice senior season.”
Freshman Caitlin Chance, a three-time all-conference selection from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, will back up Brummell. Chance is an outstanding fielder who received the NFCA Golden Glove award in 2008 after committing no errors.
“Caitlin Chance swings a good bat and has great hands,” French said. “She really knows how to play the bag.”
The left side of the Retriever infield will be completely different, as senior captain Julia Culotta and freshman Jessica Warner will man shortstop and third base. Culotta has spent the last two seasons as UMBC’s everyday center fielder, but French expects her to make a seamless transition to the infield. She is just a .239 career hitter, but she enters the season in UMBC’s all-time top 15 for career home runs, and French looks for her to put together a complete season at the plate in her final campaign. Warner is a four-time all-conference player from Southern Maryland who put up huge offensive numbers as a senior, batting .509 with six home runs and 37 RBI.
“My left side is going to be very strong, offensively and defensively,” French said. “Julia probably has the best arm in the league, and Jess has a very good arm too.”
Sophomore Amy Metcalfe, a transfer from Iona, will play a utility role once she returns from a broken hand that will sideline her for the early part of the season.
The graduated Amanda Page started nearly every game behind the plate for the last two seasons, so Yannone and classmate Becca Bernheimer will battle for the starting spot. Both have very good arms and can handle a pitching staff well.
“They’ve both been right there, neck and neck, all fall,” French said.
After two years in left field, senior Lynn Pronobis will slide back to center, where she played as a freshman. While Pronobis is just a .186 career hitter, she is an extremely strong outfielder, and French believes her offense will improve in her final go-round.
With no leaders emerging in the corner outfield positions, the coach envisions platoons in both left and right field dictated by who has the hot bat. Chance and juniors Ashley Carver, Amanda Damiano and Katrina Gaar will all see time in left field, while sophomore Ashley Scroggin will join that group in the battle for right field, while French said Ferguson could also see time in left field.
Carver is the ultimate utility player who can also play most infield positions but has not had many at-bats in her first two seasons, while Damiano was injured for most of her sophomore campaign. Gaar is a junior college transfer from Orange Coast College who batted .343 at the top of the Pirates’ lineup last season. Scroggin is in great shape, and French believes she could be an offensive sleeper in the group after getting just one hit in 13 at-bats as a rookie.
O’Malley will again be the Retrievers’ primary designated player. A career .308 hitter, O’Malley earned second-team all-conference honors last season, and French expects her to continue hitting for average while also producing more extra-base hits in 2011.
Sophomore Heather Brown will also see time as the designated player when she recovers from a knee injury. Brown did not get many at-bats last season, but she showed some power with a double and a home run among her three hits.
Senior Stephanie Weigman returns as the ace of the Retriever pitching staff and UMBC’s career strikeout leader with a whopping 636 in her first three seasons. She struggled in America East play last year, posting a 5.75 ERA, but French believes that she will rebound in her final campaign. Weigman has been working on her drop ball, which should reduce her walks and home runs allowed and enable her to economize her pitches better.
“Steph had a rough conference season last year,” the coach said. “It just didn’t go her way, but that’s not going to happen this year. She’s worked hard, and she is one of the most conditioned people. I feel strongly that she will pitch at an all-star caliber.”
Ferguson will continue the UMBC tradition of good-hitting pitchers, as she will be the Retrievers’ second option in the circle. Ferguson posted a 17-3 record with a 1.24 ERA and 209 strikeouts in 130 innings of work last season at Cecil. Freshman Kayla Martinez is a ground ball pitcher fromAnne Arundel County who will also get innings, as will a healthy Brown, an America East All-Rookie Team selection last season.
The Retrievers face another challenging schedule, which begins this season at the Moe’s Blue and Green Invite hosted by Florida Gulf Coast University, where they will face Iowa, Eastern Michigan, Southern Illinois and St. Francis (Pa.). French hopes some tough non-conference competition will get his team ready for the rigors of the America East schedule, where he believes UMBC will make some noise.
“I’m always an optimist,” he said. “I like where our pitching’s at. It starts and ends in the circle. If we play good defense and get timely hits, I think we can (surprise people).”