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UMBC Softball Opens Season at UNC-Greensboro Spartan Classic This Weekend
Dana Shepherd shattered UMBC's single-season doubles record in 2007.
The UMBC softball team took another giant step forward in 2007, advancing to the America East Championship title game before falling to three-time defending champ
Now, head coach Joe French believes, is the time for the Retrievers to make the leap into the NCAA Tournament.
“Last year was a great year, and it solidified us as one of the upper-echelon teams in the conference,” the seventh-year Retriever mentor said. “I think that getting to the playoffs two years in a row, it showed that we now can mix it up with the other schools, which I think is a step forward for our program.”
The Retrievers posted a 32-18 overall record last season and went 14-9 in America East play, their most conference wins since picking up 19 victories in 2003 while members of the Northeast Conference. UMBC advanced to the four-team America East Championships for the second year in a row, entering the tournament as the No. 2 seed after being picked to finish fourth in the preseason poll.
Despite some big losses this year, however, the Retrievers will sneak up on no one.
“We earned the respect of everyone last year, and now we have to duplicate that again, but people aren’t going to take us lightly,” French said.
UMBC will have to replace the big bats of 2006 America East Player of the Year Melanie Denischuk, three-time all-conference selection Reilly Ward and everyday catcher Krissy Licursi, as well as starting left fielder Kristi Troster. The quartet combined for 160 hits, 14 home runs and 101 RBI last season.
But French believes if his returning players step up, his seven newcomers will be able to come in and fill the voids.
“I think we’ve more than replaced what we lost, and I don’t think we’ll skip a beat,” French said. “In fact, we’re more athletic and even more versatile than we’ve been in the past.”
Gray was the Retrievers’ ace last season, leading a staff that allowed the fewest hits in the America East. She earned all-conference second team honors after posting a 13-9 record and a 1.81 ERA, as well as a league-low .198 opponent batting average. She also hit .291 with eight home runs and 29 RBI in the heart of the batting order, and French expects the senior to put up similar numbers on both ends again this year.
“Gray will be a force both ways,” the coach said. “The other pitchers will have to take the No. 1 spot away from her.”
Fefel posted a 13-3 record with a 3.15 ERA on the mound and hit .300 with a team-best 13 homers and 35 RBI in her rookie campaign to earn first team accolades. The sophomore will enter the 2008 season in the same role in which she left 2007 – as the team’s No. 2 starter and likely cleanup hitter.
“Fefel had a record-setting freshman year,” French said. “I think opponents will circle her as the one player they don’t want to let beat them this year. She’s a year older and a year more confident.”
In order to keep their bats in the lineup on an everyday basis, Gray and Fefel will play first base and serve as the designated player when they’re not pitching.
UMBC’s third starter is freshman Stephanie Weigman, a three-time all-Metro pick out of nearby Archbishop Spalding who posted a 0.82 ERA with 158 strikeouts during her senior season. Unlike Gray and Fefel, Weigman is just a pitcher who does not hit, which French believes could be an advantage for the rookie.
“Weigman is going to be an impact pitcher in the conference,” French said. “She’s going to battle anybody in the league, toe-to-toe. She’ll be an impact player from day one.”
Senior team captain Kali Shirk will move back behind the plate after manning center field for the last two seasons. Shirk caught a number of games as a freshman, and a lack of depth at the position will force her to shift gears. She batted .312 with 39 hits and 28 runs scored at the top of the order last season.
“Kali is as good as any catcher I’ve had,” French said of his jack-of-all-trades. “She can play anywhere on the field.”
Junior college transfer Alison Duff will back up Shirk. A two-time NJCAA All-American from national champion
When not pitching, Fefel will likely start at first base, with Gray, Duff and Culotta all possibilities to fill in.
Senior team captain Dana Shepherd started almost exclusively at second base last year but will slide back to shortstop, where she earned all-conference second team honors in 2006. Shepherd hit .320 with 55 hits and 46 runs scored last season, primarily as the leadoff hitter, and she broke UMBC’s single-season doubles record with 19 two-baggers.
“Dana’s hitting has gotten better each year,” French said. “I think she’s going to have a great senior season.”
Shepherd’s double play partner will be one of a pair of newcomers in sophomore transfer Jessica Vetock and freshman Lauren Brummell. Vetock spent last season at nearby CCBC-Catonsville, where she batted .533 with 35 RBI and 20 stolen bases, while Brummell is a Metro Player of the Year from
Emily Thompson will maintain her starting spot at third base, and French predicts big things out of the sophomore this season. Thompson started 32 games last year but received just 30 at-bats due to struggles at the plate, but French believes 2008 is her time to shine. Fefel and Shirk will spell Thompson on occasion.
Culotta, who transferred to UMBC after spending a red-shirt season at national runner-up
“Julia Culotta will be a thumper in the middle of our lineup,” French said.
When not playing second base, Brummell will start in left field, while right field will be a platoon of Kearns, O'Rourke and Pronobis, who can also play anywhere in the outfield.
“Krista exploded onto the scene last year,” the coach said. “She’s been swinging the bat as good as I’ve ever seen her. She’s a tough bat and has got all the tools, whether she’s pitching or in the field, so she’ll find a way to hit herself into the lineup someplace. I’m expecting a really big junior year out of her.”
Brummell and Pronobis are both speedsters who will likely find themselves at the bottom of the batting order this year, but French envisions them as sparkplugs for years to come, stepping into the roles that Shirk and Shepherd will vacate after this season.
“Kali and Dana are the heart and soul of this team,” French said. “But Pronobis and Brummell, they’re going to be the new catalysts of the future.”
O'Rourke’s struggles at the plate last season limited her at-bats, but she will look to return to her 2006 form, when she hit .333 in 69 plate appearances.
Also in the outfield mix is junior Randi Willey, a transfer from
“This will be my swiftest and most sure-handed outfield in a long time,” French said. “It’ll be more of a rotation out there at the beginning, so the more someone hits, the more they’ll play.”
The designated player role will also be a platoon, with Gray, Duff,
Another tough non-conference schedule features an early doubleheader against in-state rival
“By beefing up the schedule again, I think by the time we get to conference play we’ll be tested and be able to see where we’re at,” French said.
French believes the same six teams will be battling at the top of the conference standings again this year, with last season’s regular-season champ Boston University and three-time defending conference titlist Albany leading the way, followed by UMBC, Hartford, Stony Brook and Maine. But he also knows that
“You have to go through
UMBC opens its season this weekend at the UNC-Greensboro Spartan Classic Feb. 16-17. The Retrievers’ home opener is a doubleheader against Bucknell on Saturday, Feb. 23.
The Retrievers will again host two tournaments this season – the UMBC Dawg Pound Tournament March 7-9 and the UMBC Spring Classic March 20-22. The conference season kicks off March 29-30 at