Head coach Joe French opens up his 12th season at the helm of the Retrievers' softball program with his eyes set on UMBC's sixth trip to the America East Championships in the last eight seasons. The black and gold missed out on the 2012 conference tournament after posting a 19-31 overall mark. French will look to a youthful roster, eight letterwinners and three starters return for UMBC, to exceed the league coaches' projected seventh-place finish in 2013. UMBC will rely to its co-captains, junior shortstop Caitlin Chance (Easton, Md./Easton) and reigning America East Co-Rookie of the Year, sophomore catcher Taylor Hall (Cosby, Va./Cosby), to lead the squad this season.
"I think last year was an awakening to not only me, because I had never gone through a season that ended like that before, but also to our girls," French said. "This year we have a very hard working set of players. They came back in great shape. They're young and raw, but they are talented.
"So even though we have little game experience, I think we have good softball players," French continued. "Our biggest thing will be to keep our players consistent and keep them developing every day."
With a wealth of talent, youth, and versatility, French opens the season with a "pitching-by-committee" mentality. Senior Heather Brown (Pasadena, Md./Northeast) serves as the Retrievers' only full-time starting pitcher, but will begin the season in the bullpen for the final stages of her rehab after offseason surgery. Brown enters her final season with the Retrievers ranked seventh all-time at UMBC in appearances (76), ninth in innings pitched (300.2), and ninth in games started (45).
Junior Kayla Martinez (Odenton, Md./Arundel) will see some time as a pitcher, in addition to playing in the Retrievers' middle infield. Martinez made 18 appearances in the circle for the Retrievers last season and will vie for one of the three starting spots early in the year. French looks for sophomore Miranda Clark (Tampa, Fla./H.B. Plant) to see an increase in action this spring and move into the starting rotation in her second campaign with the black and gold. Clark made 21 appearances and started in eight games during her rookie year.
"Martinez is a combination player who will see time as a starter and a reliever for us this season," French said. "Clark saw limited action as a starter last year, but we expect her to make a big step this year and move up in the rotation."
Newcomers Rachel Ionata (Tampa, Fla./Palm Harbor University) and Chelsea Bertoglio (Laguna Hills, Calif./Saddleback College) will provide an immediate impacts in the circle for UMBC this season. Ionata, an all-state pitcher from Tampa, Fla., throws hard and is expected to work her way into one of the three starting spots in the 2013 rotation. Bertoglio comes to the Retrievers after playing two seasons at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, Calif. The junior hit .386 with a .713 slugging percentage in her second year with the Gauchos and will split time between the bullpen and first base in her first season with the black and gold.
"I'm not sure how our rotation order will pan out yet, that's what the first few weeks will do, but I am confident that once we get some more experience under our belts, we will have a good staff put together," French said.
"I think softball starts and ends in the circle," French expressed. "We don't have true power pitching that will strike out 10 or 12 kids a game, so I think the most important things for us will be for our pitchers to throw strikes and to have good solid defense behind them."
Heading up the defense, are returning starters Hall and Chance. Hall posted UMBC top-ten single season marks in slugging percentage (.627, fourth), on-base percentage (.429, fifth) and batting average (.367, sixth) in her rookie campaign. The Cosby, Va., native will return to her spot behind the plate this season, in addition to providing depth at first base behind Bertoglio. Newcomers Jordan Sganga (Edgewater, Md./South River) and Alex Zelaski (Columbia, Md./Oakland Mills) offer relief for Hall at catcher.
"In a couple of spots, it is going to depend on who is pitching and who is catching," said French. "When Martinez or Bertoglio are pitching, we will have to switch some things around in the infield. Sganga is so athletic, so she can play catcher, third base, or in the outfield. She is just one of those kids that if there is a hole on a certain day, she will be the one to fill it."
When Martinez is not pitching, she will take over the reins at second base for Chance, who will make the jump to shortstop in her junior season. Chance ranked third on the team in batting averaging (.266) and runs batted in (17) in 2012 and will move into the leadoff spot for the Retrievers in 2013. Sophomore utility player Mary Hartman (Eldersburg, Md./Century) will back up the middle infield after seeing action in 29 games a year ago, while also providing depth to UMBC's outfield.
Third base is the only infield position without an established starter to begin the season. Sophomore Courtney Reinfeld (Parkland, Fla./Stoneman Douglas), Sganga, and freshman Danny O'Neill (Loathian, Md./Southern) will rotate into the opening. Reinfeld appeared in 32 games, splitting time between first base and designated player, and batted .172 in her first season with the black and gold.
"We need to make the routine plays on defense, especially because we have a couple of ground ball pitchers," said French. "Our lineup is more circular this year and is tougher from top to bottom. We will look to be very aggressive on the bases and are going to try and take the extra base whenever possible. Our hope is that our pitching and our defense can put us in a situation to be successful and that our hitting will take care of the rest."
UMBC welcomes the return of right fielder Ashley Scroggin (Stafford, Va./North Stafford) to the lineup this season, with freshman Jane Pardo (Malverne, N.Y./Sacred Heart) competing for time as her backup. Scroggin sat out in 2012 due to injury after hitting .279 and leading the Retrievers in home runs (10) in 2010.
Across the diamond in left, transfer Megan Sauble (Gleb Burnie, Md./CCBC-Catonsville) will compete for the starting job with Sganga and Hartman, while rookie outfielder Bridget O'Malley (Brooklyn, Md./Seton Kenough) looks to be the front-runner for the starting spot in center field.
Sophomore Kayla Margentino (Unionville, Conn./Farmington) will split time with Hall, Sauble and Bertoglio as the team's designated player after registering a .419 on-base percentage in her first year with the Retrievers.
With a young squad this season, French knows that this year's roster will have to be just as tough mentally as they are physically.
"It will be important for our team to be able to handle the emotional side of this game," admitted French. "Some days go really easy for you, and others are tough. You have to be able to bounce back and be able to shake off an error, or an 0-for-4 outing and be unaffected in the second game or the rest of the weekend."
UMBC opens its 2013 slate at the Jimmy John's Lion Classic II hosted by Southeastern Louisiana Feb. 14-16. The Retrievers take on the host Lions on Feb. 14 and follow with matchups against Texas Southern and LSU-Alexandria on Feb. 15. The black and gold conclude their opening weekend against South Dakota and South Dakota State on the 16th.
"Our group should be very excited to open the season after working very hard this fall and through the winter months," said French. "Is it very exciting every year to open the season and get going. Our goal is to improve each and every day and be ready for AEC play in late March."