Softball Begins Second Season Under Heather Gelbard in North Carolina on Friday

Photo: Erin Trnka
Photo: Erin Trnka

The UMBC Softball team starts its second season under Heather Gelbard's leadership when they kick off the season in Greenville, North Carolina when they take part in the Pirate Clash February 16th-18th. The Retrievers will look to build off their 22-30 record last year in Gelbard's inaugural season.

UMBC will have games against Towson (10:00 AM) and Saint Joseph's (12:30 PM) on Friday, games against Towson (3:00 PM) and host East Carolina (5:30 PM) on Saturday, and wrap up the tournament with another game against Saint Joseph's on Sunday at 9:00 AM.

Towson went 23-27 last season.  Saint Joseph's went 25-28 last season and will be led by first year head coach Erin Brooks.

East Carolina went 26-30, and lost in the America Athletic Conference's semifinals as the No. 6 seed last season. 

Outlook

The most important thing for Gelbard this season is her team's ability to battle throughout the year.  "We'll be looking for a lot of resiliency.  Softball's a game of failure, and I think one of the things that's critical to our success is that every team is going to get knocked down at some point, whatever it might be, but just the ability to bounce back," Gelbard said.

"We're playing some stiff competition this year and I think at times all teams have a bad game, statistically that is going to happen, but the ability to bounce back from that and not let one bad game turn to two or two bad games turn to four, and the ability to learn from whatever we do and move forward and use those lessons to make sure that we don't repeat mistakes, and hopefully turn that into a good year with some consistency."

Coach Gelbard put together a challenging non conference schedule this season.

"The ultimate goal is to get our team ready for a regional atmosphere.  The preseason is designed to prepare ourselves for the competition we'll face in the America East Conference.  I think by playing some tough opponents that will get us ready to compete up against the challenging conference schedule that we face."

"We want to play in some big environments in the preseason so if we are in position to win our conference tournament, then regionals and playing in front of a hostile crowd won't be something we never experienced before."

Gelbard has a heavy mix of seniors and freshman all playing prominent roles in the coming season.

"I think one thing you'll notice about our roster is that we are a little bit thin, so the thing about that is we are expecting contributions from everybody.  Our senior class has done a great job throughout the fall with leading our team and setting a great example for the freshmen."

"Our freshmen have been eager to learn and very coachable which I think is very important.  They've also been taking the process and understanding the process of knowing that it's not going to happen over night.  We have some very talented freshmen, but certainly they've never experienced a college season before, so they're going to have some new experiences and they work very well with our returners."

On leadership, Gelbard said, "We've been trying to have leaders within every area of the field.  Some are leaders in the infield group, some from the outfield group, so just kind of a mix of that.  We have very good internal leadership on this team and we are focused on the right things.  It is something we've been really happy about throughout the fall."

UMBC will have multiple players at almost every position, highlighting their flexibility for Gelbard.

"It's hard to project starters and tell you where people will be because we have a lot of versatile athletes which is good.  It makes it hard as a coach to figure out where to put people, but that is a good problem to have."

Pitching 

Senior Kim Puccio will lead the pitching staff this season, coming off a strong junior campaign, posting a career-low 3.03 ERA in 30 appearances, going 9-9 on the year.  The Sparta, N.J. native sports a 3.21 career ERA as well and has tossed 18 complete games in 42 starts.

"We have Kim returning from what I would say last year was a breakout season.  She showed glimpses of what she's capable of and with some hard work by herself and pitching coach Colin Christiansen, I think she's in a good position to build off of last year's success and continue to be more consistent," Gelbard said.  "I think everyone in the league will know that when she's on the mound we have a chance to win."

Alongside Puccio will be sophomore Valerie Hammett and freshman Brianna Baker to round out the pitching staff.  Hammett appeared in just four games last season, starting one.  She will look to flourish in an increased role on the staff.

"I think Valerie has a ton of potential and I'm excited to see what she can do in a more regular spot in the rotation.  This fall has done a great job at getting her confidence and she is really someone who works hard and the team has a lot of confidence in.  When she's on she's going to be really tough and I think she will be able to shut people down."

Baker will also be thrust into an important role in her first collegiate season.

"We expect Brianna to make strong contributions to the team after joining the team late as a winter transfer."

Catching

Freshman Anna Lonchar will be the primary backstop in her first year with the Retrievers.

"Anna is going to be our primary catcher.  She established herself throughout the fall with her work ethic and definitely her skill.  She is someone that is wise beyond her years and I don't think anyone would know she's a freshman, both size and skill-wise."

Fellow freshman Imani Dawson will work some time behind the plate as well, backing up Lonchar.

Infield 

Sophomore shortstop Maddie Daigneau will continue to lead a strong infield group for the Retrievers.  Daigneau was named to the America East All-Rookie team, and ranked first in hits (63), third in batting average (.375), second in triples (5), and fourth in stolen bases (14) in the conference.

"Last year Maddie became a pretty everyday face at shortstop.  She's someone we'll probably depend on again for a bulk of the time at shortstop, but we do have a little more depth there with Julia Keffler, and Carly Lesko can play shortstop in this league as well."

Senior Toni Santonastasso will look to improve off last season in which she set career highs in home runs with four, hits with 32, runs scored with 22, and RBI with 19.  She also played strong defense at first base all season, committing just one error all year.

"Toni did a great job last year at first base, and she's really done a great job at providing leadership to the team.  I expect to see her a good bit at first base."

Sophomore Kennedy Lamb saw action in nine games, mostly in the outfield, but will likely see time in the infield this season.

"Kennedy Lamb, a sophomore now, has shown a lot more with her bat this year and can compete for some time.  I hope to get her bat in the games a little more this year."

Senior Carly Lesko will make the move from designated hitter/first base to cover either second or third base this season, but will also spend time in the outfield as well.  Lesko was a leader at the plate last season, and was named to America East All-Conference honors.  She ranked fourth in the conference in home runs with nine, while also leading the team in RBI with 29 and a .569 slugging percentage, all of which were career highs.

"The term utility player kind of gets a negative connotation as a 'jack of all trades, master of none' and that does not apply to Carly.  I truly consider her a utility player now.  She has great speed, footwork, good arm strength, and with her set of skills she can play anywhere on the field, and you might see her really anywhere on the field from time-to-time," the coach said. "Her bat has proven herself to be one of the most consistent power threats on our team and we'll depend on her on an everyday basis."

Freshman Imani Dawson and Julia Keffler will round out the infield, as both will be taking on large roles in their first season.

"Second base is one of those positions we have a variety of options.  A couple of freshmen, Imani Dawson and Julia Keffler have both competed for time and have done some great things throughout the fall so we're excited to see what we can do there.  Imani also has experience at third so she can jump in there if we need that as well."

"I would expect Anna Lonchar, when she's not catching, to get some time at third base, although I do expect her to catch a good bulk of the games, is a real good third baseman and she can make a great impact on defense in front of the ball as well." 

Outfield

"We have a lot of very talented pieces [in the outfield]. We have a lot of places where we can take people in and out," said Coach Gelbard.

All-Conference First Team Member Tori Alexander is the leader of the outfield group.  The senior led the team in runs scored (30), doubles (11), and at-bats (173).  She ended the season on a 15-game hit streak.  She was also second on the team with a .353 batting average.

"Tori did a great job locking down center field for us last year, so look for her again to be out there this year."

Classmate Haley DeLany will receive more playing time this season as well.  DeLany will recorded 19 hits, four doubles, and one homerun last season.

Junior Shayna Rider was a key contributor off the bench last season as the team's go-to pinch runner in key situations.  Rider scored nine runs last season and recorded her first collegiate hit.

"Haley saw some time for us last year, as did Shayna Rider, and those are names from time-to-time that you will probably see."  

Junior Mallory Pollack appeared in 23 games last season, and freshman Sierra Pierce will both make contributions to the outfield this season.

"Mal gives us a lot defensively, and we have a freshman outfielder in Sierra Pierce that has shown a lot in her bat throughout the fall."

Redshirt senior Erin Trnka enters the season trying to bounce back from an injury-riddled 2017.

"We have Erin Trnka coming back from injury, and she's certainly done a nice job in the outfield."

For live stats of all games this weekend, click here: http://www.sidearmstats.com/ecu/softball/

For the live stream of the ECU game, click here: http://www.ecupirates.com/watch/?Live=1244&type=Live