Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Unbeaten UMass softball prepares for A-10 tournament, opens play Thursday

Minutewomen are the top seed

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(Caroline O'Connor/Daily Collegian)

(Caroline O'Connor/Daily Collegian)

(Caroline O'Connor/Daily Collegian)

By Amin Touri, Sports Editor

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Two months, 45 games and 299 innings of softball later, it all comes down to this.

The Massachusetts softball team boarded a bus for the Bronx on Tuesday, where UMass (33-12, 21-0 Atlantic 10) will be the top seed in the 2018 A-10 tournament.

The Minutewomen are fresh off a weekend sweep over George Mason, as a rainout of the final game sealed an unbeaten conference slate for the first time since 2012, and they’ll take the confidence of having been untouched in the A-10 into the tournament.

“I think it gives us confidence,” said UMass coach Kristi Stefanoni. “More than the record we’re able to look back on the actual games and go through a couple of them, see when we were behind and were able to come back and be strong and take the lead, or when we were up by a lot and how we got there. I more or less take it and look at it for approach and how we’re going to take the tournament, than confidence by the numbers.”

No. 2 Fordham will get the other bye and will face the winner of No. 3 Dayton and No. 6 George Washington, while UMass will get the winner of No. 4 George Mason and No. 5 Saint Louis, two teams it holds a 2-0 advantage over this spring.

“We’re excited,” said junior shortstop Kaitlyn Stavinoha. “I think that we’re really confident in our game and we know that if we play our own game we can beat anyone, so we’re excited and ready to go. Everybody’s so pumped, we can’t wait to get down there. We were talking about how we travel well, we’re going to have a lot of people there, it’s going to be loud, it’s going to be fun, and we can’t wait.”

The double-elimination will take place at Fordham’s Bahoshy Field, as the Rams counter UMass’ confidence edge with home-field advantage. The two teams met in the title game last year and are the favorites to so again.

Stefanoni’s biggest advantage this time around is her pitching staff, as she won’t have to rely on Meg Colleran to throw every single inning like she did last season. Freshman Kiara Oliver has had one of the finest seasons of any pitcher in the conference — earning A-10 Pitcher of the Year honors this week — and combines with Colleran for the best one-two punch of any team in the tournament.

Both pitchers will probably see plenty of action, both available to take the ball to start or to come out of the bullpen.

“I think if anything we’ll stick with what we’re doing unless something implodes, and we have to do something different,” Stefanoni said. “Mix up the order or keep someone in longer than we anticipated. But we’re going to be as consistent as we possibly can.”

The Minutewomen open the tournament on Thursday at noon, chasing their first A-10 tournament title since 2012. It’s Stefanoni’s fourth go at the tournament, and the most confident she’s ever been in the team she’s bringing with her.

“Undoubtedly. Absolutely the most confident (I’ve been),” Stefanoni said. “I feel a different way about this team. I feel nervous — maybe nervous is a bad word, but I’m anxious to get going. I am probably more all smiles than ever before getting on the bus with this group of people, I love being around them, I love every single one of them, they are just amazing people.

“There is no other group I would want to get on this bus with.”

UMass dominates A-10 awards

The A-10 announced its end-of-season awards on Tuesday, and the Minutewomen cleaned house.

UMass took home three of the four major awards, as Jena Cozza was named A-10 Player of the Year, Oliver took home Pitcher of the Year and Stefanoni earned Coach of the Year honors for the first time.

“It’s great, and I’m very thankful for it, but I really just want the championship,” Cozza said. “That’s all I’m concerned about.”

Oliver and Cozza were both named All-Conference First Team, along with First Team nods for Erin Stacevicz in center field, Melissa Garcia at first base and Kaitlyn Stavinoha at shortstop.

“I’m going to be honest, I’m a little surprised, because I didn’t think that was going to be a thing,” said Stavinoha. “It’s always nice, obviously, to be recognized but this year we’ve all been just excited about the team. It’s nice, but it’s not the main goal.”

Left fielder Kaycee Carbone earned Second Team and All-Academic honors for the second straight season, and Amy Smith rounded out the honorees with an All-Rookie selection at second base.

“Every single kid that got an award today absolutely deserved it,” Stefanoni said. “Whether they say it or not I think it was part of their goals, but all of them would trade all of those in for the big one we’re going for at the end of the week. But I am very proud of every single one of them, they’ve all put in such hard work to get those awards and they deserve it.”

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

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