After combining for two conference wins in the previous two seasons, UMBC softball set out to prove something in 2014, by posting its highest win total since 2009 (31-22) and registering a 20-win improvement from 2013. Head coach Joe French celebrated his 800th career coaching victory (three-sport win total) and his 600th career softball coaching victory in 2014, but that is not where the celebrating concluded. The Retrievers tabbed an 8-9 record in league play to make their return to the America East Championships for the first time since 2011 and the sixth time overall.
"Last year, it was a goal to make the America East Championships," said French. "This year. that is obviously one of our three or four main goals. Our goals are to have a good record, to get some big non-conference wins,; to make the playoffs, and, we'd like to be good enough to be playing on the last day of the playoffs and be fighting for an automatic bid to the NCAA's"
The Retrievers were the only America East pitching staff to post a perfect game and a no-hitter in 2014 and allowed the least amount of walks (78) for a UMBC staff since 1996. Freshman Kelly Lane registered the program's first perfect game with a season-best 10 strikeouts in a 13-0 victory against UMES, while classmate Jessica Holte threw a no-hitter in the contest that clinched the Retrievers' playoff spot in a five-inning 10-0 victory against Hartford. Holte ranked as high as first in the nation in walks allowed per seven innings (0.77).
Offensively, the Retrievers saw the power that it had been lacking in recent years, leading the league in runs scored, runs batted in, hits, home runs and walks during the regular-season. UMBC was led by All-Conference First Team honorees Taylor Hall and Danielle O'Neill. Both Hall and O'Neill made their way into UMBC's single-season record books, as well as becoming the first duo since 2006 to each post 10-plus home runs in a season.
Despite falling in a pair of contests in the America East Championships at Stony Brook, N.Y., French and the Retrievers are ready to build upon last year's success. French has a pitching rotation that has a year more of experience and one new member and the Retrievers have added even further power and speed to their offensive lineup. UMBC returns 15 letterwinners and eight starters from a season ago, including a pair of America East All-Rookie Team pitchers in Holte and Lane and All-Conference First Teamers in Hall and O'Neill.
"Our schedule is more demanding than last year," continued French. "This is the earliest that we've ever played, but I really don't mind it, because the bulk of our team, now has some innings under their belt.
"Last year it seemed liked we singled, we doubled, we walked and we homered," said French. "Now, we're going to be able to set up runs with our wheels. We are going to be able to run in the runs, we are going to be able to bunt in and slap in the runs. We've also added another solid pitcher. We just have more dimensions and depth that we are adding and I see us being a contender, no doubt."
French has always been a coach that has believed that games start and end in the circle. This year proves to be no different. Despite French bringing back a young pitching rotation, he has a trio of second-year pitchers that gained valuable experience in their first season on campus and will be looked upon to give the Retrievers' offense a chance to win ballgames.
Holte earned three America East Pitcher of the Week honors and two Rookie of the Week selections after posting UMBC single-season top-10 marks in six categories, including wins (18, third) and fewest hits allowed (204, second). Holte matched the program's highest win total for a freshman with an 18-9 record and tossed four shutouts. Lane complemented Holte well, tossing four complete games and two shutouts for a 7-7 record in the circle. The righty chipped in four doubles and 15 runs batted in offensively for the Retrievers. The third sophomore pitcher in the trio, Nicole Casagrand, added a 6-4 overall record in 13 games started. The lefty tabbed a 3.26 earned run average and finished the year with six complete game performances.
French has seen great production from veteran pitcher Miranda Clark during the pre-season after making three appearances in her junior campaign and expects to be part of a strong bullpen to start the season. Rookie pitcher Kim Puccio joins the staff from Sparta High School in New Jersey, a consistent member of the state playoffs, and will see time in both the starting rotation and the bullpen in 2015.
"Our pitching should be strong from start to finish, depending on the current day starter," said French.
The Retrievers return a majority of their infield from last season, starting with the team's leader in senior catcher Taylor Hall. An ECAC Division I All-Star Second Team selection, Hall became just the fourth Retriever to be named to the All-Conference First Team in three straight seasons. Hall led the league in batting average (.397), slugging percentage (.762), on-base percentage (.497), hits (60), runs batted in (51) and total bases (115). The veteran will look to add to her career-marks during her final season with the program.
"Taylor is one of the best pure hitters in the America East Conference and UMBC history," French said.
Senior Kathleen Sharp and sophomore Kinsey Shifflett will each provide relief behind the plate for Hall. Sharp batted .250 in 23 games played in her first season on campus, but perhaps helped even more with her leadership skills, while Shifflett saw action in 16 games and added some pivotal pinch hitting appearances during her rookie campaign.
"Kathleen and Katlin (Olesky) came in last season with a team attitude and a winning attitude and they have shown some great senior leadership so far this season."
The Retrievers return the speedy duo of junior shortstop Bridget O'Malley and senior second baseman Katlin Olesky to their middle infield. O'Malley has appeared and started in 105 games during her first two seasons on campus and has entered into UMBC's top-10 in career walks (60). The Baltimore, native batted .256 in the second-spot and led the team in stolen bases (seven). Olesky, another natural born leader in the Retrievers' lineup, overcame an early season hand injury in her first season with the Retrievers to bat in nine runs.
Also battling for time in the middle infield will be sophomore Jaclyn Buckley and newcomer Tori Alexander. Buckley, perhaps the most versatile player on UMBC's roster, started 42 games in her rookie campaign, driving in 19 runs and registering seven extra-base hits. Alexander backs up the speed of Olesky and O'Malley and is a four-time All-District First Team honoree from Woodbridge Senior High School that batted over .500 for her career with the Vikings.
Sophomore Kaelin Jackson earned her starting role at third base last season, starting in 46 of her 52 appearances as a rookie and registering a .432 slugging percentage with 15 extra-base hits. Lane and senior Courtney Reinfeld will also both see time at third to help get their bats into the lineup.
Across the diamond at first base is where the Retrievers will be looking to fill the hole left by the graduation of All-Conference Second Team honoree Chelsea Bertoglio. French has a pair of rookies battling for the spot in Carly Lesko and Toni Santonastasso. Lesko, a four-time All-League First Team selection, set New Milford High School records in hits (171) and runs batted in (174) en route to being named the school's Female Athlete of the Year in 2014. Santonastasso was named a top-50 NJ Softball Player to Watch by MSG Varsity in 2014, but missed her senior season due to injury.
"I expect Kaelin and Kelly to make a leap in their offensive production across the board," said French. "They are going to turn from good freshmen hitters to core sophomore hitters, while Carly and Toni will bring a very solid bat to the lineup, either as starters or pinch hitters, with both providing the ability to drive the ball."
Junior Danielle O'Neill will also see time at first when she is not serving as the team's primary designated player. O'Neill led the league in runs scored (44) and walks (35), while also ranking third in on-base percentage (.447) and fourth in home runs (11) en route to earning All-Conference honors for the second straight season.
"Danielle has the rare ability to beat you with power, running the bases and scoring runs," French said. "She is just a tremendous offensive threat."
French has plenty of options in filling the three outfield spots, with an array of experience returning, and also expects it to be one of the team's most improved areas. Senior Mary Hartman has seen action in 116 games with 71 starts during her career, while junior Jordan Sganga appeared in 44 games and drove in a career-best 17 runs last season. Buckley and Lane will also provide viable options in the outfield after seeing time last season, while red-shirt freshman Erin Trnka looks to get into the mix after sitting out her first season on campus due to injury.
"This will be the deepest team that we've had in four or five years," admitted French. "Day-in and day-out there is a competitive battle going on. Whoever plays the best across the board will see more time."
Newcomers Alexander, Emily Neal and Haley DeLany add further competition for the three outfield spots. Neal is a five-year letterwinner and two-time state champion from Caravel Academy. The outfielder was named to the National Fastpitch Coaches Association All-America First Team during her senior season after earning two NFCA All-East Region selections. DeLany helped to guide Souderton Area High School to its first-ever state title last season and was a Class AAAA All-State Third Team honoree.
The Retrievers' schedule features six straight tournaments to open the season, which is slated to start on Feb. 6 at the Charleston Southern Tournament.
"We are starting our schedule the earliest we've ever started, in addition to starting on the road against some tough opponents, which makes this schedule a tough one," said French. "We are challenged right out of the gate, which I think is good in preparing us for conference play, by playing on the road against some bigger schools. I definitely think that we have an exciting and challenging schedule ahead of us and we are anxious to get going."
UMBC was picked to finish fifth in the annual America East Coaches' Preseason Poll with 17 votes, three behind fourth-place Maine (21). The Retrievers begin America East action with a three-game series against Maine starting on March 29 at UMBC Softball Stadium. The America East Championships are slated to begin on May 7, with the highest seed hosting.
"This is the most well rounded team we've had in all facets of the game in a few years," said French. "As a team, I think it's important for our squad to remember, especially during conference play, you have to come ready to play every day and every inning. Don't take the seventh place team any lighter than you do the first place team. Conference games are different-you have to play them all hard."
UMBC opens play against Southern Illinois at the Charleston Southern Tournament on Friday at 1 PM in Charleston, S.C.