UMass softball enters 2015 brimming with high expectations

By Tom Mulherin

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(Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian)

(Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian)

Kristi Stefanoni, the head coach of the Massachusetts softball team, set high expectations for her squad by saying that she sees the team winning the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament at the end of the season, and moving on to the regional round of the Women’s College World Series.

For a team that finished last season with a mediocre 16-22-1 record and failed to make a deep run in the conference tournament, these expectations appear improbably high.

However, many starters from last year’s roster are returning, a high-power hitting pitcher-turned-outfielder is getting a real shot at the plate this year and a recently hired first-year pitching coach is already making a significant impact on the pitchers.

With so many factors benefitting the team, Stefanoni is determined that the Minutewomen (2-3) will stick together and turn some heads this go around.

“We’re all on the same page, we’re all marching to the same beat,” Stefanoni said. “We have a very strong pitching staff and we’ve got a lot of kids that can really hit the ball for power numbers. To not have those high expectations, I think I would be selling myself and this program short.”

Those statistics, albeit in a small sample size, back it up.

UMass technically started its season last Friday when it participated in the Houston Hilton Plaza Invitational for a five-game set. By the end of the weekend, three different hitters hit multiple home runs. New outfielder – and former pitcher – Tara Klee did so thrice for a team-high and the team totaled seven dingers in the series. How about that for power numbers?

Outside of the batting order, the pitching staff threw for a decent 3.18 ERA from the hill, which is about two runs under last year’s pitching performance (5.19 ERA) in the opening tournament. While the players deserve applause for the performances they gave, it’s difficult to not credit new pitching coach Kaitlin Inglesby with the change in results.

As a team, the Minutewomen leave Texas averaging more runs scored per game than earned runs allowed per game (5-to-3), a feat that last year’s roster failed to do to start off the season (2.6-to-4.6).

So, how does UMass start to string together wins, the only thing it’s missing? Stefanoni believes the key moving forward is to just keep playing and to find a way to be itself in order to improve.

“The one big thing that we really wanted to focus on (for improvement from last year) was just to bring ourselves back and know who we are,” she said. “Obviously with the mechanical, technical things we wanted to be better on defense, be better from the mound and have a better batting average. I think all that will come as we are outside more.

“For the first time on dirt, I thought we did pretty darn well,” she continued. “We’ve done better than ever before coming out for the first time. Compare our stats from last year to this year, and everything in every category (is improved). I think we’re on our way up.”

Again, the statistics are there to support Stefanoni’s claims.

Last season, the team started off the season 3-12. Then, once the players started to get more time outside and “found out who they were,” the Minutewomen went on a decent 13-7 run to close out the regular season.

Now that the overall game of the team is improving and it is off to a good statistical start, maybe those high expectations don’t appear as improbable.

Tom Mulherin can be reached at [email protected]