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2006 UMBC SOFTBALL SEASON OUTLOOK
Reilly Ward and the Retrievers open their season this weekend at the UNC-Wilmington Seahawk Classic.
The UMBC softball team finished the 2005 season five games below .500 at 26-31-1 and lost three starters from last year’s lineup, including Kristie Pickeral, the program’s all-time hits, home runs and RBI leader.
But head coach Joe French does not expect a rebuilding season in 2006. In fact, he believes this year’s team is better than its predecessor, and he expects these Retrievers to challenge for one of four berths in the America East Conference Tournament, despite finishing sixth in 2005, three games behind fourth-place Stony Brook.
The Retrievers return 13 players, including six starters, and have added three freshmen and three transfers, all of whom are expected to make an immediate impact. In addition, all four of UMBC’s 2005 all-conference players – junior Reilly Ward and sophomores Kali Shirk, Dana Shepherd and Stevie Shore – are back and have another year of experience under their belts.
“I think that we were probably three runs short from making the playoffs last year if you count three of those one-run losses,” French said. “With the newcomers that we have added, we’re a stronger team. We’ve got two America East recruiting classes, so I expect that to pay off as well. I think our team is pretty solid and deep, and I think we bolstered our pitching staff.”
The 2006 Retrievers are extremely versatile, with a number of players capable of playing multiple positions well.
Last season, Shore, an America East all-rookie team honoree, did the bulk of the catching. But French believes she was overworked, as injuries to teammates often forced her to start both games of a doubleheader behind the plate, and it eventually took a toll on her hitting, as her batting average dropped to .215.
“Stevie played outstanding at catcher and first base,” French said. “She was very streaky last year. I think in her second year you’re going to see more consistency with the bat. The catching wore on her, as she developed some nagging injuries. I’d like to see Stevie cut to 30-to-35 games at catcher and play some first base and DH and maybe even take a turn in right field to keep her stronger.”
Senior Jessica Griffith and junior college transfer Krissy Licursi will take turns spelling Shore behind the plate, with Shirk, the team’s “jack-of-all-trades” filling in if necessary.
French calls Griffith the “sleeper” going into the season.
Licursi, a junior out of
First base will likely be manned by junior Melanie Denischuk, a two-year standout at
Denischuk will be backed up by one of the catchers not playing behind the plate on any given day, as well as junior Brittany Boyd, a transfer from East Carolina who will primarily be a pitcher.
“We have a bevy of players at first base,” the coach said. “That’s one of those spots where a hot bat will keep you in the lineup on a regular basis.”
Senior Ashlea Underwood will pick up where she left off at second base, where she started 57 games last season. Shirk, Ward and freshman Michelle Olivieri will back her up. “Ashlea has a solid glove, a strong arm and good field awareness,” French said.
Shepherd, a 2005 America East all-rookie team honoree, started all 58 games at shortstop as a freshman, hitting .318 and amassing 63 hits. Her five home runs are the most ever by a shortstop at UMBC. Shepherd ranked among the team and conference leaders in most offensive categories.
Ward will start at third base and back up Shepherd at shortstop when necessary. An America East Second-Team All-Conference selection, Ward led the team in every power category in 2005, and her 12 home runs tied for the second-best single season total in school history.
“Reilly emerged as an impact hitter in the conference last year,” French said. “With the support that she’s going to have in the middle of the order, I think Reilly’s going to see some good pitches because she’s going to be well-protected.”
Licursi and Denischuk could spell Ward at third base when she needs a rest.
When not backing up another position, the versatile Shirk will play center field. Voted the team MVP as a freshman and selected to the America East all-rookie team and all-conference second team in 2005, Shirk collected a team-high 66 hits and 36 runs and was a perfect 17-for-17 in stolen bases.
“Kali can play any place on the field except for pitcher, and she plays everything well,” French said.
Shirk and Shepherd, the leadoff and No. 2 hitters in the lineup, became just the second and third freshman in UMBC history to collect 60 or more hits in a season. “Kali and Dana were like thunder and lightning at the top of the order,” French said.
Shirk will be backed up by freshman Courtney O’Hara, who could start in left field. Olivieri, sophomore Carla O’Rourke and freshman Krista Kearns – when she is not pitching – may also see some time in left. Right field will be manned by O’Rourke or one of the catchers, likely Licursi or Shore.
Junior Heather Bennett will be the primary designated hitter, but the catchers and Denischuk could also take turns in that spot.
Lauren Nicholson and Amy Sadowl return for their senior seasons in the circle. The pitchers each have 38 wins, tied for most in school history, and are among the program’s all-time leaders in every major pitching category. Despite a season-ending shoulder injury that cost her the last two weeks of the 2005 campaign, Nicholson recorded a career-high 108 strikeouts, the third-most ever in a single season at UMBC.
Sadowl led the team with 10 wins in 2005, and along with Nicholson, will anchor the rotation. “Amy is always steady and reliable,” French said.
Also returning in the circle is junior Jessica Taylor, who posted five wins last season, splitting time as a starter and a reliever.
French is excited about the depth and versatility of his 2006 Retrievers, and he expects the players’ bats to decide who will be in the starting lineup, especially in the rotating positions. “I think we’ve basically got 13 starters, especially with our new additions,” he said.
The Retrievers open the season Feb. 24-26 at UNC-Wilmington’s Seahawk Classic. UMBC will compete in five weekend tournaments, hosting three, to begin the 2006 campaign. The UMBC Kickoff Classic is March 4-6, the Retrievers’ first home games of the season. America East play begins April 1-2 at
With two seasons of America East play under their belts, the Retrievers are primed to make a run for the conference tournament in 2006. Last year they beat six of their seven league opponents – all but conference champion