(Photo by BYU Photo/Mark Philbrick)
PROVO, Utah -- After clinching four-consecutive conference titles in four different conferences, BYU softball is preparing to turn in another first-place effort en route to another postseason run.
“The development of the team is going well,” BYU head coach Gordon Eakin said. “In our assessment as coaches we’re ahead of where we were last year at this point. We’re getting better every day. The outlook right now is good. We like what we see.”
The Cougars will pursue a second-straight West Coast Conference title with high postseason aspirations as they look to continue an NCAA tournament streak of 10-straight appearances that began in 2005.
The 2015 season will also mark the first time since 2011 that BYU will compete in the same conference two years in a row. The team has clinched six-straight titles including the Mountain West Conference from 2009-11, the Western Athletic Conference in 2012 and the Pacific Coast Softball Conference in 2013 before making the move to the WCC.
The Cougars return two seniors, two juniors, seven sophomores and one redshirt freshman while welcoming six newcomers. The team also welcomes back seven starters–six of them sophomores who started as freshmen in 2014.
“We have a very deep team with the ability to move players in and out without losing a lot,” said Eakin.
Though the roster may look young, several of the players have meaningful experience under their belts already.
“Even though were young, we have a lot of experience because we started so many freshmen last year,” Eakin said. “It’s hard to figure youth out, but my coaching style is to be a little bit more free-spirited with youth and not quite so structured because you never know what to expect on any given day. We’ll be a free-spirited team early in the season and let them play, then, we will develop a little structure in needed areas as we go along.”
This season the team will look to fill roles due to the graduations of starting centerfielder Carly Duckworth, all-conference second team selection Ashlee Robinson, power hitter Katie Manuma and all-conference first team pitcher Tori Almond.
Sophomore catcher and WCC Co-Freshman of the Year Sydney Broderick returns after having a stellar freshman season in 2014. She batted .360 with six home runs and 31 RBI while recording a .444 OBP.
“Syd Broderick is a big time player for us and we need her to play well. She needs to be an effective leader for our team” Eakin said. “She’s very talented, has a strong arm behind the plate and is an excellent hitter.”
In addition to Broderick, sophomore Mercedes O’Connor could see some time at catcher, but will mainly play outfield.
BYU returns two pitchers in McKenna Bull and Ashley Thompson. Freshmen Madison Merrell and Arianna Paulson will also be available.
“From the circle, McKenna Bull will be our go-to pitcher right now and she is looking very good,” Eakin said. “She’s a lot further along this year than she was last year.”
Coming off a solid freshman campaign, Bull will be the primary pitcher. The Ogden native struck out a BYU freshman record 206 batters in her first season on the way to a 16-9 record with an ERA of 3.15. She led BYU in innings pitched last season with 173.1. The Cougars bring back two players in Bull and Thompson who threw a combined 60 percent of the innings pitched in 2014.
The BYU infield features several strong returning players with junior Coco Tauali’i and sophomores McKenzie St. Clair, Lauren Bell and Thompson, who will play first base and pitch. Newcomers include Ashley Godfrey, Paulson, Alexa Strid, Caitlyn Larsen and Merrell along with veteran Megan Arnold and redshirt freshman Karli Lehr.
Thompson put up strong numbers as a freshman, hitting five home runs with 31 RBI and a .430 OBP. She also drew 37 walks.
“She not only gives us great athleticism defensively, but also a very, very strong bat,” Eakin added. “She will hit in the four-hole for us. She’s a very strong hitter for us and she’ll pitch too. We expect big things from her this year.”
Second baseman McKenzie St. Clair and shortstop Lauren Bell will anchor the middle infield. St. Clair hit .350 last season with five home runs and the second-highest RBI total on the team with 34. Bell accumulated five stolen bases and 53 hits while batting .329 in 2014.
“Lauren Bell will start at short, but if needed, she can play second base as well,” Eakin said. “She’s another player who’s a great athlete and gives us a very solid presence defensively and a good bat in our lineup. Lauren is a total player she has great game instincts.
Senior Lacey Millett Hoffstedt, junior Gordy Bravo and sophomores Mercedes O’Connor and Brittany Call return with newcomers Godfrey and Greta Bodine joining the position group.
“As a senior Lacey Millett Hofstedt’s speed will be big for us,” Eakin said. “She’s making great contact, getting on base and she’s hitting with a little bit of power this year.”
The senior came up big in BYU’s 2014 win over No. 2/3 Oregon, whose inside-the-park grand slam helped the Cougars to a 6-5 victory. O’Connor will also contribute in the outfield. She went 3-for-3 with two RBI and a double in the final game of the season against Northwestern, finishing fourth on the team with a .326 batting average.
Bravo will play centerfield coming off of a stint playing with the Mexico National Team this past summer. The junior has a career .356 batting average while garnering an All-America selection as a freshman.
“She’s grown a lot as a player and has had a nice fall,” Eakin continued. “So far in preparing for the spring, she’s doing very well. We expect big things from her. She will most likely be our leadoff hitter.”
The Cougars open the 2015 season on the road in the Kajikawa Classic tournament Feb. 5 at Tempe, Arizona. They will face Virginia at 4:30 p.m. MST.