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UMass community grieves for beloved friend and mentor James Tilley -

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Amherst Board of Health votes against reinstating College Pizza’s food establishment license -

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Battle of the bottom: UMass women’s basketball travels to La Salle Wednesday -

February 10, 2016

UMass softball looks to continue hot play after hitting its stride

The Massachusetts softball team feels like it’s close to hitting its stride.

After starting the season 2-10, the Minutewomen (7-12, 1-1 Atlantic 10) have won five of their last seven games as they prepare for two conference series’ in Pennsylvania this weekend against Temple and Saint Joseph’s.

The nation’s top teams were responsible for the Minutewomen’s poor start, but the Maroon and White recovered two weeks ago at the USF Under Armour Showcase, where they went 4-1 before splitting its first conference series, 1-1, against Charlotte last weekend.

UMass believes it is on its way to returning to championship form. However, UMass coach Elaine Sortino believes there’s a lot of room for improvement, especially with her offense. Sortino, who’s in her 32nd season, knows that once a few players show more consistency at the plate, the rest will follow suit.

“We have to hit one through nine,” said Sortino. “We just have been out of sorts and I felt like it’s not our swings as much as our choices. We took a lot of good pitches and swung at a lot of bad pitches last weekend.”

Senior Audrey Boutin and sophomore Teea Rogers are doing their best to spark the rest of the lineup. In UMass’ last seven games, Boutin is batting .417 (10-24) with a home run and a team-leading nine RBIs, while Rogers, last season’s A-10 All-Rookie Team selection, is hitting .409.

Senior catcher Meghan Carta believes that the lineup is close to clicking, which starts with leadoff hitter Kyllie Magill. Magill, a junior second baseman, is expected to set the tone for the Minutewomen offense, which features plenty of youth and inexperience.

“Kyllie’s been leading off for us, and when she starts the game off with a hit, it sets the tone right away and the hits follow so I think that it’s definitely contagious,” said Carta. “Once we collectively are [calmer collectively], then we’ll start producing more runs.”

More offense would be a welcome sight for junior ace Sara Plourde, who accounted for all four wins at the USF Under Armour Showcase, notching 54 strikeouts in 26.1 innings while allowing two runs. Last year’s national strikeout leader and A-10 Pitcher of the Year is 7-9 thus far with a 1.50 ERA. Despite the impressive statistics, she believes she has yet to reach peak form.

“I feel it coming together a lot more,” said Plourde. “This past week we kind of just broke everything down [and] took it back to basics and honestly that’s probably one of the best things I could’ve done.”

“She needs better break and location with her moving pitches, [as well as] the ability to deliver an off-speed pitch at will for a strike,” said Sortino.

The Minutewomen will play a doubleheader on Saturday against Temple and again on Sunday against Saint Joseph’s. Plourde will get the nod for at least two of those four games.

Temple (10-14, 1-1 A-10) has dropped four out of five, most recently losing a doubleheader against UMBC, 8-5 and 12-4, respectively. The Owls have a team batting average of .289, led by senior starter and outfielder Kristen Marris’ team-high .377 average. Marris also receives the majority of starts; she is 4-7 with a 4.14 ERA through 66 innings thus far.

Saint Joseph’s (16-10, 1-1 A-10) features two very strong hitters in junior third baseman Monica Aguilar (.441, 3 home runs, 22 RBI) and sophomore outfielder Dana Parks (.437, 11 SB). Junior Erin Gallagher is the ace of the staff, registering an 11-5 record with a 1.60 ERA and 98 strikeouts in 109.2 innings pitched.

“I think they’re going be tough,” said Sortino of both teams. “I think St. Joe’s fundamentally is very solid … Both teams are outhitting us, I mean most people in the country are [because] we got off to a really tough start, but we also played a really tough schedule with very, very young [players]. The bottom line is we’re getting better and all four games are going to be tough.”

Unsurprisingly, UMass has a target on its back this season as it is attempting to win its 15th conference championship in 16 years.

“I personally love it,” said Plourde. “I love playing hard teams and I love when they’re coming at us … I don’t want to know that I’m going to win, I want it to be a challenge.”

Steve Levine can be reached at slevine@student.umass.edu.

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