UMass softball opens conference play at La Salle this weekend

Minutewomen prep for A-10 opener


(Collegian file photo)

By Amin Touri, Assistant Sports Editor

The games are about to start counting for the Massachusetts softball team, as it begins Atlantic 10 play with a three-game set against La Salle this weekend.

And as far as the Minutewomen are concerned, the 21 games they’ve played so far were a warm-up—Saturday marks the start of a whole new season.

“I just said that to them upstairs, it’s like a new season for them,” said UMass coach Kristi Stefanoni. “This is almost kind of like the start of a second season. I think they’re prepared for it, we’ve been talking to them about it with so many young players, but a lot of them have been waiting for this weekend since last May.”

UMass (11-10) finished second in the A-10 last year, both in the regular season and the tournament, and it’s looking to take a fairly positive preseason and parlay it into the team’s ultimate goal, a return to conference supremacy.

“It’s just a good fresh start,” said junior shortstop Kaitlyn Stavinoha. “We can take the good things from preseason into conference, and the bad things we can just leave behind and start fresh. It’s nice to have a new slate, to see what we can do in conference. We’re excited, we’re really pumped to see what we can do this year. We’ve been waiting since we left George Mason last year, we’re excited.”

The Explorers (7-12) are first up, having played the Minutewomen extremely tight through last year’s three-game series, each game decided by a single run. If all goes well for UMass, this weekend’s games don’t project quite as close.

“I hope it won’t be (so close),” Stavinoha said. “I think we’re ready to come out and just play our game, and I think if we do that everything will take care of itself and we’ll be able to perform well.”

La Salle finished in ninth place last season, and were picked to again finish second-to-last in the A-10 Preseason Poll. The Explorers graduated their best hitter, Suzanne Swanicke, who led the team in nearly every statistical category.

Meanwhile, the Minutewomen have reloaded offensively and in the circle, which was born out in a strong preseason. UMass was particularly impressive offensively, run-ruling three different teams and logging multiple blowouts en route to an above-.500 record.

With the offense clicking, freshman pitcher Kiara Oliver showed she belongs at the collegiate level, going 6-2 in nine starts while striking out 68 batters and picking up an A-10 Co-Pitcher of the Week award along the way. Oliver will get her first taste of conference competition this weekend, as she’ll likely throw multiple times against La Salle.

“Yeah definitely, I’m really excited,” Oliver said. “It definitely feels new, but we’re going to bring the good things into it, it should be great. (The team) is feeling really good, we’re all working together really well and it feels very happy, and we’re always excited to play.”

It remains unclear how Stefanoni will utilize her pitching staff this weekend, as her trio of hurlers—Oliver is joined by sophomore Quinn Breidenbach and senior Meg Colleran in the rotation—could all throw significant innings.

“We’re not sure quite yet,” Stefanoni said. “We really have no idea, it’ll kind of depend on these next three days in practice. Sometimes you come in with a good idea of at least who’s going to throw in games one and two—game one especially, that’s always the most important game—but we’ll have to wait and see and see how those three do in practice this week.”

The Minutewomen had a mid-week matchup with Boston College scrapped due to poor field conditions, after last week’s winter storm dumped several inches of snow on Amherst. The same may happen in Philadelphia this weekend, as the opening series is currently scheduled to take place at La Salle, but the games could be flexed to Sortino Field if La Salle’s West Campus Field isn’t ready in time.

For now, the teams are scheduled for a doubleheader at 12 p.m. and 2 p.m. on Saturday, and a rubber match at 12 p.m. Sunday.

Amin Touri can be reached at [email protected], and followed on Twitter @Amin_Touri.