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2007 UMBC Softball Season Preview
Dana Shepherd is one of the Retrievers' three returning all-conference players.
The 2006 season was a record-breaking one for the UMBC softball team.
In their first season without all-time hits, home runs and RBI leader Kristie Pickeral, the Retrievers shattered all three team records, as well as team marks in runs, extra-base hits, walks and total bases. The power surge was infectious, as a school-record 14 different players hit at least one homer, and UMBC was one of just four Division-I teams with at least 80 round trippers. The Retrievers were also one of the most prolific run-scoring teams in the nation, ranking second in the country with 6.53 runs per game.
UMBC won 46 games, second-most in school history, against 20 losses and advanced to the America East Championships for the first time ever with an 11-10 record, winning more league games than the previous two seasons combined. The third-seeded Retrievers knocked regular season champ
Leading the way were UMBC’s five all-conference players, including America East Player of the Year Melanie Denischuk, who broke a number of individual records.
“I think it was one of those years where a lot of players had good seasons and some players stepped up and surprised me,” sixth-year head coach Joe French said. “The hitting became contagious. Also, [Lauren] Nicholson rebounded from a bad shoulder and had an outstanding senior year and I think that really helped our pitching staff. Krista Kearns came in as a freshman and pitched outstanding ballgames. Our hitting was better, our pitching was better and our defense was our pretty good. A lot of girls just had really solid years.”
The Retrievers lost first-team utility player Jessica Griffith, who graduated after hitting .311 with 12 doubles and six home runs, in addition to UMBC’s top two all-time wins leaders in pitchers Lauren Nicholson and Amy Sadowl, as well as everyday second baseman Ashlea Underwood.
First-team third baseman Reilly Ward and second-team shortstop Dana Shepherd join Denischuk as the returning all-conference players, and junior center fielder Kali Shirk had a solid 2006 after earning all-conference accolades as a freshman.
In addition, French added six decorated freshmen and a Division-I transfer in Ashley Gray, an all-conference player from
“As good as Nicholson and Amy were, I think we’ve elevated our pitching staff again with Ashley Gray and [freshman] Amanda Fefel,” French said. “The potential is enormous there. No matter how much we hit, I think it’s still going to come down to good pitching. I think for the most part our foundation is set with a veteran lineup and I think we can play with anybody on our schedule and we expect to win the majority of our games.”
Gray and Fefel are power pitchers who also swing a solid bat. Gray posted a 17-8 record with a 3.04 ERA and 129 strikeouts last season for the Hornets while hitting .380 with four home runs, 36 RBI and 43 runs scored and will likely serve as the Retrievers’ cleanup hitter this year.
Fefel is a two-time Baltimore County Player of the Year who went 17-4 with a 0.80 ERA and 211 strikeouts in her senior season at
The newcomers join
Senior swingman Jessica Taylor saw her inning load reduced last season but will see more innings in 2007.
“We have four solid pitchers,” French said. “I think we’ve got the three pitchers that we lost covered. Right now I think on any given day you can throw Gray, Fefel and Krista out there, with J.T. a very solid fourth pitcher. This is the most talented staff from top to bottom in my six years at UMBC.”
Senior Krissy Licursi is the lone returning catcher for the Retrievers. In 38 games, Licursi hit .278 with nine RBI in her first year at UMBC after transferring from
“Licursi will get the nod at the plate and catch the majority of the ballgames,” French said. “She was very solid defensively in the 20 games she caught last yearand showed flashes of consistency but lost catching time to hotter hitters. Krissy has had an outstanding fall, and I expect her to fill the void left by
However, French acknowledges that the lack of depth at catcher will lead Licursi to spend a lot of time behind the plate. Shirk caught a number of games as a freshman and will have to spell Licursi from time to time, as will freshman walk-on Natalie Wilson.
French believes his experienced infield is the team’s strength, as three of four starters return from 2006, bringing a combined 42 home runs and 181 RBI from a year ago.
First base will again be manned by Denischuk, who will attempt to repeat her monster junior season, her first at UMBC after transferring from
French expects her to receive the same treatment in 2007, but does not believe the first baseman’s numbers will suffer greatly. Denischuk will bat third behind Shirk and Shepherd, so she will have plenty of opportunities to drive in runs.
“I think what makes her such a tough hitter is her opposite field power,” the coach said. “She’ll take the tough pitch and hit it over the opposite field fence, she’ll turn on the inside pitch. She’s just an outright bona fide big-time player and the best left-handed hitter I’ve ever coached.”
When not pitching, Fefel and Gray will serve as Denischuk’s backups.
Underwood started all 66 games at second base as a senior last season. French will look to speedy freshman Ashleigh Robinson to be the primary second baseman to start the season, but could platoon her with senior Kristi Troster, who returns to the diamond after sitting out two years to play field hockey. Ward may also see some time at second base depending on the pitcher.
“Robinson has a great glove, good hands and a good arm,” French said. “She just needs to get the experience of playing against college pitching.”
Shepherd will be the starting shortstop for the third straight year after putting up outstanding numbers in 2006 to follow-up her all-rookie season. Shepherd hit .338 with 72 hits, eight homers, nine doubles and 47 RBI and also scored 49 runs and stole 16 bases in 65 games. She also strung together a 20-game hitting streak, the third-longest in school history. Primarily the cleanup hitter last season, Shepherd will likely move to the two hole in the lineup.
“Dana has increased her numbers every year,” French said. “She gives you the quick bunt, the stolen bases, the power, the opposite-field power and steady play at shortstop. She’s an all-conference type of player, one of the top players in the Mid-Atlantic region and UMBC history.”
Ward will start at third base and also back up Shepherd at shortstop. The senior topped her superb sophomore year with an even better junior season in 2006, hitting .320 with 12 homers, 17 doubles and 52 RBI and will again bat fifth in the order.
“Like Dana, Reilly has improved her numbers every year and is ready for a monster senior season,” French said.
Ward will be backed up by freshman Emily Thompson, the Western New York Player of the Year with a .413 batting average and 15 extra-base hits as a high school senior.
“Emily is a star of the future, she just needs some game experience,” French said.
Shirk will anchor a relatively inexperienced outfield from center. The leadoff hitter followed up her all-rookie campaign with a solid sophomore season, batting .297 with a team-best 57 runs scored (third-most in a season by a Retriever) and 41 steals (second-most). She stole a school-record 45 consecutive bases to start her career before getting caught for the first time at the end of March, and her 58 career steals rank third all-time at UMBC.
“Kali is probably one of the top three base runners in the conference,” French said. “She is the catalyst of our team. She gets on, she steals bases, she quick bunts, she hits, she has occasional pop in the bat and she’s great leader. She can play any place on the field. If there was one kid you wanted to clone and put at three or four places, Kali’s it. She’s invaluable to this team.”
Troster will serve as Shirk’s backup, though she will likely start in left field. Thompson and junior Carla O’Rourke will also see time in left, while O’Rourke and senior Heather Bennett will likely platoon in right. In addition, freshman Lauren O’Malley should see some time in the outfield, as could a healthy
“Troster is a terrific athlete who closely resembles Shirk because she can play infield and outfield,” French said. “I think it’s Heather Bennett’s time to be consistent. Heather, Carla O’Rourke and Emily Thompson will battle for the right field job, and O’Malley and
French envisions Fefel or Gray as the regular designated player when not pitching. In addition, a deep bench will be headlined by O’Malley.
“I think O’Malley gives us a lethal left-handed bat as a pinch hitter off the bench,” the coach said. “She has been one of the best hitters in
As the team has improved, French has dropped some of the softer games from his schedule in favor of adding local powers Towson, Maryland and George Washington, as well as 2006 NCAA Tournament teams Marist and Lehigh.
“We’ve significantly increased our strength of schedule,” French said. “I want our schedule to get tougher every year.”
French believes the America East is wide open, though he sees the same five teams at the top again this year, with
“We have a goal,” he said. “We want to win the America East. I think we should be right in the mix. If we put everything together I think we have enough to win it.”