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Softball to Open Season This Weekend at Campus Suites Spartan Classic
Amanda Fefel is the Retrievers' top returning hitter.
The UMBC softball team has a number of questions to answer as it enters the 2009 campaign.
Last season, the Retrievers earned a berth in the four-team America East Championships for the third year in a row; however, three of the top four hitters from that team have graduated, including the top three batters in the lineup.
Gone are Ashley Gray, Dana Shepherd and Kali Shirk, along with their 147 hits, 24 home runs and 86 RBI in 2008. The trio accounted for at least 40 percent of the Retrievers’ output in each category last season.
But head coach Joe French believes if his returning players step up, his eight newcomers will be able to come in and fill the voids.
“I don’t think you can honestly expect to replace the things that they did,” the eighth-year Retriever mentor said. “What you’ve got to hope is for other kids to step up and prove themselves. I think we’re a different type of team. I would like to think that some of the kids that were streaky last year and ended up in the .230 to .250 range now become .280 to .300 hitters with a little more pop in their bats.”
The Retrievers’ pitching staff will miss Gray, but it should still be a strength in 2009 with the return of sophomore Stephanie Weigman, junior Amanda Fefel and senior Krista Kearns. Weigman emerged as UMBC’s top hurler last season, going 14-13 with a 2.60 ERA and a freshman-record 141 strikeouts en route to America East All-Rookie Team honors. Fefel was largely inconsistent in the circle, posting a 4-5 record with a 3.79 ERA, but French expects the team co-captain to return to her freshman-year form, when she went 13-3.
“Weigman and Fefel have looked outstanding,” he said. “They should be ace and ace.”
“Krista looks very similar to her freshman year right now; she just has to establish command and endurance to be able to pitch deep into ballgames,” French said. “It’s her last time, she’s hungry. She hasn’t been able to put together a full healthy season, so hopefully everything falls into place for her this year.”
Six-foot-one sophomore Julia Culotta will pitch in relief this season after not stepping on the mound during her freshman campaign, but French has seen marked improvement from the tallest player on his roster.
“Julia has been a real surprise throwing the ball throughout the fall and winter,” he said. “I think she can come in as the fourth spot pitcher if we need a couple innings here and there. She has made rapid progress learning from Coach (Lauren) Nicholson.”
None of the Retrievers’ three catchers played at UMBC last season, but junior college transfer Amanda Page gives UMBC a veteran backstop. The 2008 NJCAA Division III Player of the Year, Page batted .614 and led the nation with 15 home runs at
“I’ve had some really good catchers, but she’s as good as I’ve had, and she also swings a pretty good stick,” French said. “Page is a true catcher, a team leader and a go-to kid.”
With the number of first basemen on the roster, the position will be manned by whomever has the hottest bat. Fefel will see a lot of time there when she is not on the mound after batting .331 with seven home runs and 33 RBI a year ago, when she was named to the America East All-Conference First Team.
“Fefel is the best hitter on the team, possibly the best hitter in the league,” French said.
Culotta and sophomore transfer Malorie Weller will also get a lot of innings at first when not in the outfield. Culotta struggled at the plate for a good part of her freshman campaign, but French expects her to take her game to the next level in 2009.
“Julia’s a year older, it’s time for her to become a core player, not a complimentary player,” the coach said.
Weller transferred from
“Malorie is the real deal,” French said. “It’s just a matter of with the year she took off, sometimes offensively, there’s a bit of a roller coaster in consistency.”
Freshman Kaela Mason also has the potential to see some time at first base. Mason led the state of Maryland in batting average in each of her last two seasons at Harford Tech High School, hitting better than .600 each year.
“Kaela Mason has swung a good bat and shown a pretty good glove,” French said. “She could push for time depending on the situation.”
After losing Shepherd, the team’s incumbent second baseman, that position is still up in the air. Sophomore Lauren Brummell, an America East All-Rookie Team selection who spent most of last season in left field, could slide back to the infield, while sophomore Ashleigh Robinson and freshman Ashley Carver could see time at second, as well.
French envisions Brummell taking Shirk’s place atop the batting order and believes she can be the same type of hitter, as well. Similarly, French sees a lot of Shirk in Carver, who, like Shirk, can play almost anywhere on the field.
“Carver is a gem with the glove, whether we player her in the infield or the outfield, so she could see time any place defensively,” he said.
Junior Jessica Vetock will again man shortstop, but French hopes the team co-captain can pick up her offensive numbers this season after batting just .171 in 82 at-bats in 2008, her first year in a Retriever uniform. Robinson will likely be her backup.
Junior Emily Thompson will reprise her role at third base, and French looks for big things out of the 5-foot-11
“It’s Emily’s third year, it’s her turn to go from streaky to consistent,” the coach said. “I think she’s going to have a big year.”
Robinson and Yannone also will see time at the hot corner.
Who starts in the outfield could depend on who is playing in the infield. Brummell and Weller could both see time in left field, but when they are playing other positions, freshman Amanda Damiano could get the start. A career .409 hitter in high school, Damiano is fast and has been swinging a good bat in the preseason. Senior Randi Willey also will push for playing time in left.
Sophomore Lynn Pronobis, the incumbent starter in center field, will likely get the nod again in 2009. Pronobis is another player whom French hopes can elevate her game to the next level after batting just .204 as a rookie. She will be backed up by Weller and Carver.
Right field is another position that could be determined by the hot bat. Culotta started 24 games in right last season, while
“When she’s been healthy, she’s always been a good stick,” he said. “She has a great arm, and her speed is back up.”
Other players that could platoon in right field include Damiano, senior Alison Duff and sophomore transfer Amanda Barker. Duff was a two-time junior college All-American but struggled at the plate in her first season at UMBC, while Barker transferred from Maine Maritime Academy, where she was primarily a pitcher but also hit .250 in 84 at-bats.
When not playing the field,
French is excited about having a deeper roster than in years past, giving him more options off the bench and a better opportunity to play the hot bat. And because so many of his players can play more than one position, the coach will have the ability to mix and match to find just the right combination.
“Depending on who starts, it gives me two or three pinch hitting options that I really didn’t have last year,” he said. “I see the bench playing a role in key situations this year.”
He also likes the added speed that many of the newcomers bring to the table. The addition of players like Damiano, Carver, Barker and Yannone, as well as the return of Robinson, gives French a new dimension to work with.
The Retrievers open the season this weekend with a tough tournament at South Carolina-Upstate, where they will face the host Spartans, as well as Presbyterian and the