Youth and inexperience was a contributing factor in a disappointing season for the Massachusetts softball team last year, which failed to win the Atlantic 10 title for the first time since 2004, and failed to reach the NCAA Regionals for the first time since 1994.
Youth is still a significant part of the equation for the Minutewomen, who possess 11 underclassmen on their 20-player roster, but experience appears to be far from an issue as much of their core remains intact after graduating only two seniors from last year’s squad.
“We’ve got some young kids pushing the envelope that I think will make some significant contributions,” said UMass coach Elaine Sortino. “Overall I think things are looking pretty good. It’s just a matter of getting things together.”
One can easily argue that senior Sara Plourde has been the backbone of this team for the past two seasons, winning a combined 67 games for UMass, and things don’t appear to be any different so far in 2012.
In 21 appearances, Plourde is 12-8 with a 2.77 earned run average and 216 strikeouts, and already has a handful of accolades to go along with the solid numbers.
Plourde has thrown two no-hitters on the season, including one in a 1-0 win over then-No. 17 Georgia Tech on Feb. 25, and one in a 2-1 triumph against Florida Gulf Coast on March 18.
The senior also made school history earlier in the season, passing Brandice Balschmiter’s strikeout record of 1,218 on March 4 to move into second all-time. Plourde is now seven strikeouts away from former Minutewoman Danielle Henderson’s school record of 1,314.
Capping off the list of early season achievements for Plourde was being selected ninth overall in the National Pro Fastpitch draft by the Carolina Diamonds.
Despite the accomplishments, Plourde is far from satisfied with her performance thus far.
“Personally I feel like I’ve struggled,” said Plourde. “I think anyone who is watching can tell I’ve had a couple struggles in there.”
After a consistent 1.30 ERA in each of the past two seasons, Plourde has seen a rise in ERA early on, much of which can be attributed to some early season command issues.
With 109 walks so far, Plourde has already surpassed her walks total from last season.
“We’re trying to get her a little bit more settled on the mound and have more control of the strike zone,” said Sortino.
Despite the early troubles, Plourde is confident in her ability to get back on track.
“If anything, I’d rather have the struggles happen early on this way I can learn from them and be better towards the end, which is what matters most,” said Plourde.
Something that may affect Plourde is her health. After suffering a hip injury in the A-10 championship in 2010, Plourde spent much of last season working her way back to form, but Sortino is confident the injury has nothing to do with her early season troubles.
“The injury has nothing to do with [her struggles],” said Sortino. “It’s just a matter of settling it down a bit.”
Also seeing some time on the mound is freshman Bridget Lemire, who is 1-2 in six appearances with 11 strikeouts and a 7.18 ERA.
Serving as Plourde’s battery mate behind the plate is redshirt senior Stephanie Mayne.
Being her fifth year in the program, Mayne is arguably the most seasoned of any member on the team, and will play an essential role in the success of Plourde this year.
“[Mayne] is a great leader out there,” said Plourde. “Behind the plate she takes complete command over the field.”
Spending her career as a backup for Meghan Carta, Mayne spent most of last season as the designated hitter, where she hit .139 with 14 hits, five home runs and 15 RBIs. Mayne has been more productive so far this season, however, as she is hitting .196 with 10 hits, a pair of homers and five RBIs through 23 games.
Plourde has been more than satisfied with the play of Mayne despite the fact that it is her first full year as the starting catcher, and said the the chemistry they have will bring success this season.
“She’s doing phenomenal,” said Plourde. “She’s catching balls that I would imagine hitting the backstop … she’s like a vacuum out there so it gives me a lot of confidence that anything I throw she can stop.”
Potentially the biggest surprise from UMass’ infield has come from its newest member.
Freshman shortstop Quianna Diaz-Patterson has done more than fill the void that Jordan Storro left at shortstop after graduating last season – she’s exceeded it.
“Quianna has been doing great at shortshop and at the plate,” said Sortino.
Through 23 starts, Diaz-Patterson is hitting .312 with 24 hits and 19 RBI, while also holding her own in with field with an .864 fielding percentage.
Diaz-Patterson’s finest performance came on March 2, where she set a school record with eight RBIs in one game, including a grand slam to lift the Minutewomen to a 16-6 win over Maryland.
At third base is junior Teea Rogers. After beating Tiffany Meeks for the starting job last year, Rogers hit .199 with a team-high two triples. This season, Rogers is hitting .222 with eight hits and owns an .868 fielding percentage.
With Rogers at third last season, Meeks found herself jumping all around the field, from left field to designated hitter to shortstop. This year, the sophomore has settled into a starting spot at first base, where she has a .979 fielding percentage. Her production at the plate has not been as effective, however, as she is hitting .125 to start the season, which has also opened the door for Lemire to get some chances at first as well, where she is hitting .176.
Senior Kyllie Magill will resume her role at second for one last season. Magill had a productive season last year, hitting .294 to go along with team highs in hits (48) and RBIs (25).
Through 19 games, Magill’s batting average is not at its usual pace, as she is fifth on the team with a .246 average so far, but has continued her solid play in the field with a .942 fielding percentage.
The Minutewomen have had relative consistency at the plate from their outfielders despite the offensive inconsistencies to start the season.
No player has been more reliable than Cyndil Matthew. The junior centerfielder – who has also seen time in left field – has been the foundation for UMass offensively, leading the team in multiple offensive categories, including batting average (.408), hits (29) and runs scored (22).
“I feel like I’m doing really well,” said Matthew. “I feel a lot more confident mentally and I trust my skills.”
Katie Bettencourt returns to right field after missing a majority of last season due to a lacerated liver. The junior appears to have returned to form this year, starting in all 23 games with a .290 batting average, 20 hits and 13 RBI.
“[Bettencourt] is back, very well and has been strong,” said Sortino.
Alternating stints in the outfield as well have been sophomore Lindsey Webster and junior Christine Della Vecchia. Webster has spent much of her time in left field, while Della Vecchia has seen time in center.
Webster came through with a strong season at the plate as a freshman, finishing the year second on the team in hitting (.297), and as a sophomore she’s continued to be effective. Through 23 games, Webster is batting .293 with 17 hits and has 15 RBIs.
Webster’s .600 fielding percentage thus far has opened the door for Della Vecchia to get more starts in the field despite having relatively low offensive numbers.
Heading into her 33rd year as coach for UMass, Sortino has been the face of the program. With 22 A-10 championships and 20 NCAA tournament appearances, the expectations to succeed are high every season.
With an all-time record of 1,142-480-6, it is a rarity when Sortino experiences a season as disappointing as last year. However, with a roster filled with experience and talent, Sortino is confident that the Minutewomen can get back to their winning ways, especially with another NCAA tournament appearance.
“Our expectations are to get back to the conference championship and compete for another conference title,” said Sortino.
Nick Canelas can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @MDC_Canelas.