2005 UMBC Softball Outlook
Despite suffering his first losing season since 1988, Head Coach Joe French is ready to prove that last year was just a bump in the road, as his squad joined the rugged America East Conference. "We took a big hit when we lost the 2003 graduating class," he said. "This year, we will be more experienced and ready for our second season, knowing that the league is one of the stronger conferences on the east coast."
Prior to UMBC's move to the America East, French's squad lost six starters, forcing the few remaining veterans to lead the Retriever offense, and rookies to play in positions with which they weren't familiar.
This year, however, French and his coaching staff are better prepared, as the have brought in newcomers who add to the depth of the lineup, and have had extensive experience on the playing field. "We have signed eight talented recruits, including three junior college All-Region players, who should provide talent, depth, and leadership to this season's team," added French.
Returning to lead the Retrievers this year will be senior captains Kristie Pickeral and Amanda Bile. Pickeral, who holds several UMBC single-season and career records, will be back at third base, while Bile, a Second Team All-Conference selection in 2004, will start in left field.
This season, the Retriever infield will feature new faces, as sophomore Amanda McGhee is expected to start behind the plate when not in center field, and junior Jessica Griffith and freshman Stevie Shore are slated to platoon first base. In addition, junior Ashlea Underwood will start in second base, and freshman Dana Shepherd is expected to start at the shortstop position.
McGhee, a two-time junior college All-American, has solidified Retriever catching, and should immediately make an impact. Griffith and Shore will see time at first base, designated hitter, and catch on a rotating basis with Kali Shirk.
Underwood, another junior college standout, will also bring plenty of leadership and experience with her vocal, "take charge" attitude in the infield. "She makes all the plays that a middle infielder needs to make, and is working hard to improve her offensive game and makeup for her lost time due to her knee injury from last year," added French.
Shepherd, another key recruit, claimed the starting shortstop position with an outstanding fall performance, hitting .593. "She is an incredible athlete who is strong, quick, fast, and explosive," said French. "She is still adjusting defensively to the Division I level, but I expect her to be one of the top freshmen in the conference.
In the outfield, joining Bile will be freshman Shirk or McGhee in center field, and sophomore Reilly Ward in right field, while also looking to see playing time will be freshman Carla O'Rourke. Shirk, a versatile player, can play almost anywhere on the diamond and hit anywhere on the lineup, while Ward, who now has a year of experience under her belt, is expected to be one of the top hitting outfielders in the America East this season.
In the circle, junior pitchers Lauren Nicholson and Amy Sadowl return once again to go 1-2 in this year's rotation. Nicholson, a team captain who everyone looks up to, should once again be a core player, as will Sadowl, who from start to finish, was last season's most consistent pitcher.
This year, they will be helped by sophomore Jessica Taylor, who will either start at the third spot or come in relief, and freshman Katie Jo Passero, who may see some start a few games, but primarily pitch in long relief.
Other letter-winners returning for French this year include senior Megan Oursler, junior Jessica Keenan, and sophomores Heather Bennett, and Gina Olivieri. Oursler and Keenan will both be called on as pinch-runners, with Oursler seeing some time in the outfield, and Keenan serving as a back-up catcher.
Bennett will see time as a designated hitter and pinch hitter, while Olivieri, who suffered a knee injury, will be a substitute in the infield or outfield, and will add some depth to the batting lineup when she returns healthy.
This year, the Retrievers will face several local rivals before taking on their America East foes. In addition, they will participate in six tournaments, including three that will be hosted at the UMBC Softball Stadium. "Weather permitting, we should be able to play 30-35 games before facing our conference opponents," said French. "Our non-league schedule, which is challenging and diversified, should prepare us for that, and our big home schedule should also make a difference."
For 2005, French's goals for his team remain as they have always been. "I'd like to have a winning record, and make it to the America East Tournament, for a chance to return to the NCAA's" he said. "I try to remind the team that if we can finish within the top four in the conference, we would only need to play three days of strong, competitive softball to get that automatic bid."
"By far, this is the hardest-working, most athletic, most versatile team I've had since I started here," said French. "On top of that, I have a very knowledgeable and experienced coaching staff with me. As they get to know these players, and with some continuity, we can all work together to build the UMBC softball program back up."