Replacing seniors in any college sport can be difficult when they play important roles on the team. It’s especially difficult when one of them was considered to be among the best in the nation.
The Massachusetts softball team looks to continue its success as one of the best teams in the country, despite losing the team’s best pitcher in Brandice Balschmiter, along with three other starters.
However, UMass coach Elaine Sortino feels confident that the players who didn’t play much last year will fill in the holes left by the graduated seniors and continue making the No. 20 Minutewomen good enough to make the NCAA Tournament. Here is a look at the 2010 roster.
Freshmen: Teea Rogers, Christine Della Vecchia, Tawny Palmieri
Sophomores: Kyllie Magill, Stephanie Mayne
Juniors: Audrey Boutin, Meghan Carta
Seniors: Sarah Reeves, Jessica Serio, Whitney Williams
Sortino hasn’t quite figured out how she’s going to use all her freshmen, but they all have the ability to play multiple positions and are good enough to contribute immediately. She believes the addition of Rogers and the appearance of Palmieri will make the infield defense even better than last year’s.
Palmieri came to UMass last season, but ended up redshirting because of the team’s depth. However, with the loss of Whitney Mollica at third base, Palmieri should get plenty of chances to prove herself on the field.
The look of the infield is very familiar, with three returning All-Conference players in Magill, Reeves and Williams.
Williams and Magill should pose match-up problems as lefty hitters once again with their batting averages and experience. Magill (.316) has the infield’s highest returning batting average as a sophomore and had a crucial role in bringing in runs, with 31 runs batted in during the 2009 season.
The biggest difference for the Minutewomen will be in strategy. Rather than focusing on beating teams with their power, Sortino hopes to use more of a small ball approach and use her team’s speed to bring runners along.
“I think our team overall has more speed and probably will show more small stealing, slapping stuff because of our personnel this year,” Sortino said. “I think we’ll have more of a unilateral attack.”
She will most likely rely on Magill, who was successful on the base-paths with 10 stolen bases in 13 attempts.
Williams also provides another reliable hitting option at shortstop with her .304 batting average and team-high .454 on-base percentage. She is considered one of UMass’ most patient hitters, as she drew 28 walks last season.
Freshmen: Cyndil Matthew
Sophomores: Katie Bettencourt, Stephanie Mix, Jordan Storro
Seniors: Jill Andrews, Carly Normandin, Michelle Libby
UMass may not be hitting pitches over the wall as much as last year, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be competitive.
The Minutewomen lost their top power hitter in Samantha Salato (.287, 19 home runs), but this year, the outfield will be under the leadership of Normandin. The senior made the Player of the Year watch list after finishing 2009 with a .403 average, 10 home runs, 37 RBIs and 21 stolen bases, as well as winning the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year award.
Sortino will be looking for Normandin, as well as Libby, to lead the young outfield. Libby saw significant time in 2009 as the designated player for UMass as well a s a few games at third base in place of Mollica, but will likely be the starting left fielder in 2010.
Libby was reliable last season hitting .312 and will help replace some of Salato’s power this year. Last season the senior hit nine doubles and three home runs while driving in 18 runs.
Sortino believes all three of her sophomores will do well this season despite having little playing experience. She said the reason for their lack of playing time didn’t have as much to do with their skill as much as it was the fact that Salato and Davina Hernandez were so valuable.
“There have been freshmen that nobody has seen out there yet because the other [players] were so good and so experienced,” Sortino said.
This year, Matthew, the team’s only addition in the outfield should see plenty of playing time because of her speed. So far, Sortino has been so impressed with her speed, that she calls her the fastest player on her team since former Second Team All-American Candice Molinari played for the Minutewomen.
The centerfielder finished with 98 career stolen bases in 113 attempts.
If Matthew is even close to fulfilling that comparison, she will at least give opposing pitchers something to worry about, other than an offense that can still drive in runs.
Sophomores: Sara Plourde
Seniors: Bailey Sanders
Balschmiter might not be on the mound this year, but Sortino believes the two players who were behind the Second Team All-American have almost as much talent.
Although Plourde (6-1, 1.83 earned run average) did better than Sanders (1-3, 3.08 earned run average) in 2009, she isn’t necessarily going to be the team’s No. 1 pitcher.
“I feel like they’re both A/B, B/A,” Sortino said. “I don’t know that you can make that kind of prediction. It’s too soon and too close to call.”
Sanders doesn’t have the same power that Plourde has, but has the experience and ability to defend her position. She also has more of a presence on the mound with a 6-foot-2 frame.
Before Plourde came into the mix, Sanders made at least 20 appearances in her freshman and sophomore years with a combined 21-9 record and 151 strikeouts.
However, Plourde was quite effective herself in her first year at UMass.
She made the A-10 All-Rookie Team and threw five complete games with two shutouts, including a one-hitter against Saint Joseph’s on April 10. In the second start of Plourde’s career, she threw a no-hitter March 22 against Dayton.
Regardless of who gets more of the starts, Sortino feels her team’s pitching will continue to be one of UMass’ strengths in 2010.
Adam Miller can be reached at email@example.com.