With seven seniors from last year’s team lost to graduation and only two in uniform this season, the Massachusetts softball team will rely on its youth, speed and pitching to carry it to a seventh-consecutive Atlantic 10 championship.
UMass may be younger this season, but it returns a healthy and strong core group of players who contributed throughout 2010. Kyllie Magill, Katie Bettencourt, Audrey Boutin, Meghan Carta and Jordan Storro all have playoff experience. Each of these veterans helped contribute to the Minutewomen’s championship season last year, and Sortino expects them to step up even more this season to compensate for the loss of so much offense.
“I’m excited about this year,” said UMass head coach Elaine Sortino in a UMassAthletics.com interview. “I think we have a very young and exciting group of kids that are going to keep the tradition going and become some great names.”
A softball team is only as good as its pitchers, and fortunately for the Minutewomen, they have a really good one in Sara Plourde.
Two years ago, UMass relied on Brandice Balschmiter to keep the team in games. After four seasons, Balschmiter owns the top spot in school history in saves, wins, complete games, starts, appearances, innings pitched and walks allowed. She’s also second in shutouts and strikeouts. After her graduation in 2009, it was unclear who would replace her as ace of the staff.
As a freshman she only pitched in 11 games, but in that span, Plourde went 6-1 with five complete games and 67 strikeouts, while holding opponents to a .197 batting average. Last season, as a sophomore, she recorded 40 wins and earned 556 strikeouts, the highest total in both categories in the nation.
Then, in the A-10 championship last season, Plourde began to feel stress each time she planted her landing foot on the mound to throw a pitch. After some diagnosis, she was discovered to have a left hip injury, and one that would require some rehabilitation work in the offseason. However, Sortino said that she’s shown no signs of trouble this year.
“[Plourde] is going to be back,” said Sortino. “We’ve been very conservative with her, but I think her recovery has been absolutely magnificent. We’ve had to alter her mechanics, but we’ll be off and running with her.”
Plourde has proved that she is not only a suitable replacement for Balschmiter, but that after her four years are complete, she could end up better than the former flamethrower. After only one season as an ace, Plourde sits in third place in UMass history in strikeouts (623), and also eclipsed Balschmiter’s record for most strikeouts-per-game. She is now first in UMass history with 12.08 strikeouts-per-game. With another year remaining in 2012, all the team’s other categories are within reach for the junior if she has another strong season this year.
“She’s kind of had to re-invent herself this year, and now her good pitches are coming back [from last season],” said Sortino. “She’s feeling good and I’m very happy for her [so far].”
Behind Plourde are freshmen Lindsey Webster and Caroline Raymond. Each has seen time this year, with Webster also leading the team in batting average through her nine games in the lineup.
Carta will do the catching behind the plate for Plourde. A senior from Middletown, Conn., she started all 55 games last season and was named to the A-10 All-Conference team. Carta batted .308 with 13 home runs and drove in 43 runs, which was good enough to lead the team.
Behind the plate, she’s used to catching Plourde, and the two have a good relationship. This season, Carta has yet to make an error in over 200 chances and has only recorded one passed ball. However, where she struggles is in throwing out runners. Opposing teams are successful 84 percent of the time they steal on her, having swiped 17 bases in 21 attempts.
Boutin is the squad’s biggest power threat, and will play first base. She will be relied upon to provide big hits and home runs after last year’s slugger, Sarah Reeves, helped the offense hit a collective .292 with 58 home runs and 266 runs scored.
Almost a third of the way through this season, UMass is hitting just .216 with 10 home runs and 67 runs scored. Those numbers are on pace to be less than half of the totals the team achieved in 2010.
Fortunately, Boutin has already shown some of her power, hitting a home run in last weekend’s game against Charlotte and gathering 15 hits and 22 total bases in 19 games.
Kyllie Magill will be the starter at second base. The junior has played nearly every game since she’s been at UMass, and has batted over .300 in each of the past two seasons. She also developed into a good defensive option in the infield last year.
“Defensively I think we look pretty good,” said Sortino. “Magill will be anchoring our defense at second base, and she looks really good offensively [as well].”
While Magill has been a consistent performer at the plate through her first 19 games, she has lacked in the field during the early part of this season. Magill is currently fifth on the team in batting average and leads in hits, runs and home runs, but she also leads the squad in errors, with six.
Sophomore Teea Rogers and freshman Tiffany Meeks will battle for split time at the hot corner. So far, Rogers has started nearly every game for UMass with Meeks seeing some time as a designated player.
Rogers has started each game and is second on the team in hits with 14. She’s notched the team’s only triple of the season, but she has also struck out 12 times in 52 at-bats. Meeks has played in 17 of the team’s 19 games and is currently batting .207 with two home runs.
“Teea Rogers as a sophomore is giving us probably double the performance this season as she did [last year] defensively,” said Sortino. “And [Meeks] is a kid with the biggest bat of anyone. We recruited her for her bat and she’s got a lot of pop. Tiff can also go into left or be the [designated player].”
Starting at shortstop will be Storro. The junior been tasked with replacing one of UMass’s best infielders in Whitney Williams, but Sortino believes the young infielder could turn out to be even better than Williams in the long run.
“Whitney Williams was a fabulous shortstop [last year],” added Sortino. “But Jordan [Storro] is even better. She’s incredible. She’s better [moving] to her left, better [moving] to her right, she’s long and lanky and she’s got a very, very strong arm.”
She’s hitting just .189 through 19 games, but her value can be measured in defense and speed. She’s yet to be caught stealing a base in seven chances, and with only four errors, she is fourth on the team in fielding percentage.
The Minutewomen have a wealth of players who can play the outfield and as a result, don’t have many set positions. Sortino plans to use multiple players at different positions throughout the season.
Christine Della Vecchia should be in left field for most of the season. The sophomore is highly coveted by Sortino for her fielding skills and the speed she possesses chasing down fly balls in the outfield gaps.
“She makes running down a ball that [you think is going out, easy],” said Sortino. The next thing you know she’s got it in her glove. I don’t know how she does it. She’ll be out there to give us some punch from the left side.”
Cyndil Matthew will patrol center field and is turning heads with her bat. In the team’s 19 games she’s collected 12 hits and is 6-for-6 in steal attempts. Sortino spoke highly of Matthew earlier in the year, saying that her speed and consistency at the plate will help the squad score runs.
“She is absolutely incredible. I think she hit about .790 in the fall, and she’s got the speed to give us a little bit of run manufacturing.”
Rounding out the outfield starters will be Bettencourt in right field. A captain and returning A-10 Co-Player of the Year, Bettencourt will once again be looked upon to contribute to the team’s offensive attack.
So far, she has struggled at the plate, batting just .163 through 17 games and has struck out 13 times. Bettencourt has only notched eight hits in 49 at-bats, but with two home runs and eight RBI, she still possesses the ability to circle the bases.
Behind the veterans are seven new freshmen waiting for their chance to contribute. Paige Hansen, Meeks, Candace Waldie, Raymond and Webster have all seen playing time as either defensive replacements late in games or as pinch hitters or pinch runners. Each of them will back up infielders throughout the season, with Webster and Raymond also seeing time on the mound.
Webster surprised Sortino with her bat already, hitting .357 in 28 at-bats so far and each of the newcomers figures to battle for defensive playing time throughout the season. Sortino is confident that the freshmen can all spell a veteran for a game or even a series if needed.
Though the Minutewomen are young this season, it doesn’t diminish any of the squad’s hopes for success. Sortino’s philosophy remains unchanged from year to year, and UMass expects to repeat as A-10 champions in 2011. It just might have to fight a little harder to get there.
Michael Wood can be reached at email@example.com.