BALTIMORE – UMBC softball is set to open the 2016 campaign over the weekend. Head coach Joe French and the Retrievers have the experience, confidence and depth they need to make 2016 a run at a championship season.
"Our experience should enable us to do the little things, stay focused and finish games," said French. "Two years ago when the class of 2017 were freshmen, they were playing as freshmen. They got valuable experience under their belts and went from being rookies to being seasoned veterans. Now they are our junior pitchers, starting third baseman and starting second baseman. So we really have a core in that junior class that's gained valuable playing experience.
"We've also got our three seniors that have played a lot over their time here," continued French. "Bridget O'Malley and Danielle O'Neill have been core starters since they got here and Jordan Sganga has gotten a lot of playing time during her tenure. Right there, that gives us a core of eight seasoned players. Then we blend in an experienced sophomore class for much more experience and depth than we've had in recent years. I'd like to think that because of that experience, we are going to be more confident and disciplined."
While the change in the America East Championships format does pose some excitement for the tournament and has the ability to take the pressure off of some pitching staffs, the Retrievers will not change their mindset now that the top six teams in the league, instead of the top four teams, will now make the conference tournament.
"There usually isn't much of a difference between the third-place team in the conference and the sixth-place team in the conference," said French. "The new format should add some excitement to the conference tournament, an event that has seen plenty of success for teams other than the regular season champions. On any given day, a team can beat you if you don't come to play."
French, who returns 16 letterwinners and eight starters from last year's squad that posted a 22-27 record and narrowly missed out on the America East Championships with a fifth-place finish at an 8-9 record, enters his 15th year at the helm of the Retrievers with the same goal in mind each season.
"We want to be playing on the last day of the conference tournament and have a chance to go to the NCAA Tournament," French explained. "That is always our goal."
For a coach that has always believed that the game starts and ends in the circle, French is pleased to have his most experienced staff coming from his pitching group. Assistant coach and pitching coach Larry Alvis has put in two seasons of work with a trio of juniors on his staff in Jessica Holte, Kelly Lane, and Nicole Casagrand, while adding sophomore Kim Puccio a year ago. Alvis saw his staff hold opponents to the program's lowest hit total since 2010 (382) last season, while also recording 198 strikeouts, the most since 2012.
"This is the deepest staff that we've had in the past four or five years," explained French. "This pitching staff can rival some of our best if everyone can take their game up a notch or two."
Holte and Lane earned America East All-Conference Second Team honors in their second campaigns on campus, Holte for her work in the circle and Lane as a utility player. Holte, an Ashland, Va., native, finished the 2015 season ranked fourth in Division I in walks allowed per seven innings (0.73), while also ranking in the top-10 in the America East in earned run average (2.76), opposing batting average (.279), innings pitched (162.1), strikeouts (110), wins (14), appearances (29) and games started (25). Lane split her time between the circle and the outfield for the Retrievers in 2015. In her career, she has 23 appearances as a pitcher, posting a 5.64 ERA in 90.2 innings of work. Lane has proven that her bat should be a consistent in the Retrievers' lineup, posting a .383 slugging percentage last season with a .287 batting average and 17 runs batted in.
Casagrand, who posted a 6-4 record in her rookie season with a 3.26 ERA, will look to improve off of last season's 1-3 mark in the circle. The Melbourne, Fla., native has made 29 appearances for the Retrievers in her two seasons with an overall 7-7 record. Puccio rounds out the rotation, having finished her rookie slate in the top-10 in the league in earned run average (3.52) and strikeouts (51). The Sparta, N.J., native ranked second on the team in innings pitched (77.2) and strikeouts in 2015.
"Both Kelly and Nicole had outstanding bounce-back falls," admitted French. "Weather played a role last season, especially going nearly three weeks without playing, which limited Kelly and Nicole's starts early in the year. Both have shown improvement and consistency since last year and hopefully they can have a good outing early in the year to establish their confidence and command."
The Retrievers have two major holes to fill in their infield after the graduation of three-time America East All-Conference catcher Taylor Hall and a second baseman that started 46 contests last season in Katlin Olesky, but French has no doubt that the players he has stepping in and those returning to the lineup will make for a "pretty productive infield."
"Jaclyn came back in tremendous shape and game-ready. She is going to do a wonderful job at second base," said French. "In losing Taylor, we lose one of the premier players in the league. It won't be just one player that helps us fill Taylor's shoes, it will be a group effort."
After starting in 42 of her 51 appearances as a rookie, Jaclyn Buckley found herself without a position in 2015, starting in 10 of her 18 appearances. In the fall, Buckley wasted little time snagging up the starting role in the vacant spot at second base. Buckley has posted a .252 batting average in her two seasons in Baltimore. Veteran Danielle O'Neill will serve as Buckley's back-up at second base and will serve as the team's primary designated hitter. O'Neill looks to get back to the form from her sophomore season that saw her earn America East All-Conference First Team honors after posting a career-best .541 slugging percentage with 11 home runs and 21 runs batted in. French expects that O'Neill can return to being one of the premier hitters in the league once again.
French has three viable options fighting for the job at catcher, senior Jordan Sganga, junior Kinsey Shifflett and newcomer Chelsie Delperuto, but none have extensive experience behind the dish at the collegiate ranks. French expects the group to share the load behind the plate early in the season.
Sganga has seen her 110 career appearances in a variety of spots for the Retrievers, including behind the dish, and is expected to be a field leader this season. Sganga batted a career-best .231 in her 22 games last season, including a .256 on-base percentage. Shifflett was named the team's Unsung Hero at season's end in 2015, with her most memorable at-bat coming in walk-off fashion, with a walk-off homer for the first round-tripper of her career. Shifflett has appeared in 21 games in her two seasons with the Retrievers.
Also battling for the spot is Delperuto, a three-sport athlete from Solvay High School that French can see becoming a core player for the Retrievers in the near future. The Syracuse, N.Y., native is a three-time OHSL National Player of the Year that helped lead the Bearcats to two straight New York State Championships.
Sophomores Carly Lesko and Toni Santonastasso both saw action at first base last season and it looks as though that might be the case again this season. Both Lesko and Satonastasso possess bats that French would like to see in the lineup, so the second-year player that can get the hot bat going during the season might take over the starting role permanently. Lesko, a power hitter that will also see some time at second base, started in 30 of her 41 appearances last year and finished the season with a .264 batting average and 13 runs batted in. Santonastasso, who may also see time at designated hitter, recorded a .435 slugging percentage with 12 runs batted in.
Senior Bridget O'Malley returns to her spot at shortstop after making over 130 starts in the position during her time with the Retrievers. O'Malley matched her career-best with 22 RBI last season and finished second on the team in stolen bases (10). Junior Kaelin Jackson also returns for the Retrievers' infield at third base after having appeared in 100 games in her two seasons on campus. Jackson finished with 15 extra-base hits, including five home runs, and ranked second on the team in runs batted in, with a career-best 28.
"Bridget is returning after three years at shortstop and Kaelin is a two-year starter at third base," said French. "That is a very experienced left side of the infield and that is definitely a strength of ours. The team voted both of them onto the captain's council, so obviously the team looks to them as leaders, as well as us."
Newcomer Jenna Stupey and Sganga will also vie for time at third behind Jackson. Stupey is an All-Conference player from Kamiak High School that also has the chance to enter the lineup as a pinch hitter.
French is also excited about the depth that he sees at the corner outfield spots, positions that he still believes will be battled for throughout the team's early season tournaments.
"The outfield might not hit a lot of home runs, but I think that they are going to get on base and score runs," French said. "We are very, very deep in speed and in range tracking the ball. We should be able to run down balls that should be hits and turn them into outs. If we can do that, you are going to see our pitchers pitch deeper into games."
Lane has seen extensive action in right field in her first two seasons, a key way for French to keep her bat in the lineup even when she isn't seeing action in the circle. Also fighting to see action in right are sophomore Haley DeLany and rookies Morgan Peyou and Mallory Pollack.
DeLany saw extensive action on the base paths in her first season with the Retrievers, while Peyou comes to UMBC after earning All-County honors for three straight years at Mercer Island High School in Washington. Pollack was a two-sport letterwinner at Council Rock North in Pennsylvania.
Left field looks to be even more up for grabs with Erin Trnka's four starts last season being the most of anyone vying for the spot. Trnka missed her rookie season due to injury and stepped up to the plate just nine times last season. She'll battle for the spot with rookies Shayna Rider, Nicole Shavlik and Peyou. Rider was a four-year starter at Delone Catholic High School and helped the Squirettes to back-to-back state playoff berths, while Shavlik earned All-Conference recognition in 2014 and was a two-sport athlete at Woodinville High School.
Returning in center field for the Retrievers is America East All-Conference Second Team and All-Rookie Team honoree Tori Alexander. Alexander ranked in the top-10 in the league in batting average (.392), on-base percentage (.453), runs scored (42), hits (60), total bases (82) and stolen bases (20). Alexander, who will also serve as a backup to O'Malley at shortstop when needed, will be backed up by Pollack and Rider.
"Tori has the capabilities to continue to be the catalyst of this team," explained French. "She can beat you in so many ways offensively and has the arm from center field as well. She is a gifted player and she works extremely hard every day to improve her game."
French's Keys to Winning
- Strong Pitching
- Strong Defense
- Make Some "Key" Plays
- Timely, Clutch Hitting, Especially With Two Outs
- Finish Games
The Retrievers open the season with four games at the Grand Canyon Kickoff Tournament on Friday, Feb. 12-13. UMBC meets Loyola Marymount and host Grand Canyon for two games apiece over the weekend.
"All four games this weekend will be highly competitive," admitted French. "These west coast teams haven't been stuck in a gym practicing, they've been outdoors. Every year, the first two weeks or so, are an adjustment for us to get used to playing outside, so I think it's good for us to play high competition early. It also gives us an idea of where we are and what we need to work on."