The Massachusetts softball team is already well into its 2011 season, and as the Minutewomen try to attain to a winning record, the tough early schedule facing the young players is not making matters easier.
While Atlantic 10 play has just begun, the defending conference champions have already racked up the travel miles, beginning the year in Florida at the FAU Kickoff Classic. The club then made its way to California and participated in the Cathedral City Classic before returning to the east coast for two tournaments in Georgia and Florida.
So far, the opposition has featured some of the best teams in the country, including six games against top 25 teams.
UMass coach Elaine Sortino knew the non-conference schedule would be stiff this year, enough to challenge the team’s culture of winning.
“Early on in the season, our team would be very challenged, being so young, by great competition,” said Sortino. “But I also think it’s the benchmark for where we want to be at the end. Our culture is we’re used to winning. We had to accept some of these losses. It’s not easy to lose. It just doesn’t go with our psyche. It’s a challenge to stay positive and keep your confidence, particularly as you’re so young and you’re getting kicked in the gut all the time with a loss.”
Seven of the 18 players on this year’s roster are freshmen. However, as each day passes, Sortino sees progress in her young players, with each steadily defining their role and growing more confident. Sortino is convinced that by season’s end, the Minutewomen will compete with the top teams in the country for a national title.
UMass has already exceeded its loss total from last season, however. The schedule also highlights 11 NCAA tournament teams from 2010. However, that exposure is only going to help the club figure out what aspects of the game it needs to improve on, eventually increasing its chances of winning.
“That’s very important because, ultimately, if we want to be a team that’s in the national tournament, we need to know what the national tournament will demand from us,” said Sortino.
Throughout Sortino’s 32 years as the UMass softball coach, she has guided the Minutewomen to 22 A-10 championships and 17-straight NCAA tournament appearances.
Last year, UMass went 42-10-1 in the regular season, including an undefeated 17-0-1 mark in conference play. Sortino notched her 1,100th program win when UMass defeated Fordham in the A-10 finals, wrapping up the sixth-consecutive conference championship for the Minutewomen.
This season, Fordham will likely provide the biggest challenge for UMass in the A-10. The Rams were ranked 27 in the preseason national rankings, just one spot behind UMass. Only two regular season meetings are on tap for both teams this season – a two-game series on April 29-30 in Amherst.
The Minutewomen begin their conference season in Charlotte before traveling to Temple and Saint Joseph’s. The longest home stretch will be from April 22 to May 4 as six different opponents visit UMass, including in-state rivals Boston University and Boston College.
Other northeast teams outside of the A-10 that will visit the UMass Softball Complex include Dartmouth, Connecticut, Syracuse and Quinnipiac.
Earlier this season, the Minutewomen faced a Washington club that won the 2009 national title. UMass lost the game, 9-2, surrendering an eight-run third inning. This came after playing California earlier in the same day.
The home opener for the Minutewomen will be a doubleheader versus Dartmouth on Wednesday, March 30.
Pete Vasquez can be reached at email@example.com.