After missing the America East Conference tournament in 2010 the UMBC softball team returned to post-season play, moving up two spots in the standings to fourth place in 2011, the same spot they are projected to finish again in the 2012 preseason coaches' poll. But if the Retrievers have any hope of making the tournament for a sixth time in seven years they will have to do so without two of their top three hitters from last year, Julie Culotta, now an assistant coach for the team, and Lauren Brummell. In addition Lauren O'Malley and Lynn Pronobis, who both started 50 games, graduated as well. UMBC will also be without its ace in the circle from the past four years,Stephanie Weigman, who ended her career as the programs all-time leader in wins and strikeouts.
"I'm an optimist," said 11th year head coach Joe French. "Even with the big turnover from last year's squad, I think we have what it takes to be competitive in the league. You can look for the freshman to step up right away and contribute to the club in the field and at the plate."
French calls his eight player freshman class "the most talented we've had here since 2007. Not just that there are eight of them, but with the talent that they all bring to the table…most of them will contribute right away."
Unlike in the past, though, UMBC will have a much deeper team with 17 players ready to contribute, according to French. The team will be particularly deep on the mound. For the last three years, Weigman was the ace. This year, however, the rotation has three true starters and a relief pitcher. In her first year as a Retriever senior Katie Ferguson (North East, Md./North East/Cecil CC), who is also the team's top returning hitter, appeared in 15 games and made 10 starts. She won four of those starts with a team-best 3.14 ERA, striking out 32.1 percent of the batters she faced. Meanwhile, junior Heather Brown (Pasadena, Md./Northeast) has appeared in 46 games the last two seasons, recording 14 victories. Last year her ERA dropped 41 points from the season prior. SophomoreKayla Martinez (Odenton, Md./Arundel) will be the primary reliever with French making her a priority because "she has a good bat."
Joining the pitching staff this year is freshman Miranda Clark (Tampa, Fla./H.B. Plant), an All-State pitcher from Florida. French expects Clark to be a starter right away because of her great pitch movement.
"This year we're not relying on just one starter, but instead we're going with a staff oriented approach," French said. "Brown and Ferguson will team up and be what I believe will be a dominating tandem."
The field and lineup will see some big changes as well. Angela Yannone (Pasadena, Md./Chesapeake), who hit .289 with five home runs and 29 RBIs last year, was the team's primary catcher last two seasons but will be moving to first base. "Angela has great hands, and once she gets used to the footwork, she'll be fine," French said. "I don't expect it to take much time for her to transition."
Freshmen Courtney Reinfield (Parkland, Fla./Stoneman Douglas) and Taylor Hall (Cosby, Va./Cosby) will be serving as Yannone's backups at first.
Her move to first, though, leaves a catcher-by-committee situation for the Retrievers. Hall, the Virginia High School Coaches Association Player of the Year will be the opening day starter, while senior Becca Bernheim (Lewes, Del./Cape Henlopen) and freshman Emily Forst (Germantown, Md./Northwest) also compete for the job.
Just over from Yannone, UMBC will have a big whole to fill with the loss of four-year starter Brummell. Brummell finished third on the team with a .327 batting average last season to go with 12 doubles, which she finished her career with 47. Like the catcher position, French will be going with a committee of players to fill the position and plans to put the hot back in the lineup each game. Sophomore Caitlin Chance (Easton, Md./Easton) will be the opening day starter but Martinez and Mary Hartman (Eldersburg, Md./Century) will be competing for the job.
Hartman, a true utility player, will also be competing for time at shortstop, another position that French will be looking to rotate in a bunch of players. Fellow freshman Kaila Balatgek (Reading, Pa./Exeter Township), a two-time all-division honoree who was named to the USSSA Fast Pitch World Series All-Tournament Team in 2007 and the Triple Crown World Series Showcase Team in 2009, is expected to be the primary starter.
Third base is the only position in the infield with an established starter with Jessica Warner (Huntington, Md./Huntington) returning for the Retrievers. Last year Warner started all 50 of the team's games and was named to the America East All-Rookie Team after hitting .305 with nine doubles, five home runs, and 26 RBIs. "Jessica split time there last year but will be the starter this year and I expect the experience to pay off for her," French said.
Last season the outfield was a major strength of the Retrievers' team and looked to have a star in Ashley Scroggin(Stafford, Va./North Stafford), who led UMBC with 10 home runs while hitting .279. An injury to her, however, and with other losses due to graduation French described the outfield as "wide open."
Senior Amanda Damiano (Tamaqua, Pa./Marian Catholic) is the front-runner for the starting job in left field, but will be competing with Hartman for playing time. Whichever one of those two is not starting, will be in the mix to backup in center field behind senior Ashley Carver (Swoyersville, Pa./Wyoming Valley West), who has primarily been a defensive specialist for the Retrievers. In addition Katrina Gaar (Newport Beach, Calif./Corona del Mar/Orange Coast CC), who played in 15 games last season is an option.
Competing for the job in right field will be two freshmen, Kayla Margentino (Unionville, Conn./Farmington), a three-time all-conference selection and 2011 Player of the Year, and Forst. Also, Ferguson will be competing for time there when she is not pitching.
One thing that cannot be denied is that there will be constant competition for starting jobs on the softball team in 2012 and the designated player position is no different either. French said that he plans on going with a combination of players at the start of the year: Margentino, Reinfield, whichever catcher is not starting, and Kaela Mason (Bel Air, Md./Harford Tech). Mason did not play for the softball team last year but was a member in 2009 and 2010. In 2010, she hit .302 with five home runs after starting 28 games and playing in 39. She also slugged .558 and reached base 37.5 percent of the time.
"I hope that the battles will be won by the time conference rolls around, but if not, that means we're a really deep team," French said, adding that that reminds him of the 2006 team that went 46-20 and made it to the America East Championship game.
With so much turnover, though, French admitted that "there will be some growing pains." He, however, refuses to say his team is "rebuilding" and prefers to say they are "reloading' because I really think that's what we're doing here."
UMBC will start its season on Feb. 17 at the Lancer Lead-Off Tournament in Farmville, Va. before traveling to Charleston, S.C. for the Charleston Southern Tournament the following weekend. UMBC will open its home schedule on March 2 when they face Princeton in the UMBC Retriever Classic, which will kick off a 14 game home stand that also included the UMBC Dawg Pound Invitational and the UMBC Spring Classic. Their conference schedule is set to begin on March 24 against Albany.