No matter how successful the Massachusetts softball team is, it tends to struggle the most at the beginning of the season. At the same time last year, the Minutewomen came out of their second invitational of the season 2-3, but eventually won two straight games against Nebraska and DePaul.
No. 24 UMass (6-4) finds itself in the exact same position as last season and hopes to have the same result this weekend at the Southern Florida Under Armour Invitational. Pitcher Sara Plourde is coming off her best and worst game of the season during the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Leadoff Classic.
The sophomore followed up a 1-0 no-hitter against Illinois State by giving up 10 runs (four earned) against No. 18 Louisiana-Lafayette the next day. The Ragin Cajuns went on to a 14-0 drubbing over the Minutewomen.
UMass coach Elaine Sortino will have to expect her experienced team to get over its worst loss of the season if it expects to do well in Florida. It will be the first invitational of the season where the Minutewomen aren’t playing any teams ranked or receiving votes in the USA Today/NFCA Top 25 Poll.
Sortino could not be reached for comment on this weekend’s invitational.
The only team with a record above .500 who the Minutewomen will face is Chattanooga, which won four of its last five games at the Frost Classic. Its only losses of the season were to Oklahoma, Michigan and Kentucky.
The Mocs (11-3) are led by Tiffany Baker, who plays all over the field (.410, five home runs, 12 runs batted in), in three categories. They are also deep in pitching, with four pitchers on staff with an earned run average of under 2.21.
Chattanooga’s ace is Brooke Loudermilk (0.83 ERA, 7-2), who already has five complete games this season.
The four other teams expected to play UMass have a combined 10-19 record, with no team above .500. The Minutewomen will conclude the invitational on Sunday against Robert Morris, which is opening up its season this weekend and is looking to rebound from a performance last season where it was eliminated the first day of the Northeast Conference Tournament.
UMass will also play USF, host of this weekend’s invitational. The Bulls are coming off a three-game losing streak including an eight-inning night against Arizona State, who eventually edged them out with an 8-7 victory.
UMass will be the third ranked opponent USF plays this season. The Bulls (5-5) would have played No. 13 Georgia Tech at their home field on Feb. 14, but the game was cancelled.
This weekend will be the second time they have hosted an invitational. USF also opened its season at home and went 2-2 that weekend.
Unlike the Minutewomen, the Bulls don’t have a true No. 1 starter on their staff, but have rotated between Kirsten Gordon, Lindsey Richardson and Brittany Bowles. Richardson (3-1, 2.13 ERA) leads the team with 23 innings pitched, and has the most power on the team with 36 strikeouts.
USF is also a better all-around hitting team except for average, where UMass (.281) bats 20 points higher.
The top half of the lineup has been a strong point for the Minutewomen, with six players batting above .300. Outfielder Katie Bettencourt (.458) is the only batter currently hitting above .400.
For now, she has been filling in for Carly Normandin, who has one at-bat on the season and is sitting behind Audrey Boutin. The junior has started eight games as a designated player and is spending time in centerfield, which is Normandin’s position.
She is currently batting .238 with two RBIS.
Kyllie Magill, second basemen for UMass, has also been a solid contributer. She currently leads the team with nine runs and is second with six RBIS.
Adam Miller can be reached at [email protected]