(Photo by BYU Photo)
PROVO, Utah – After back-to-back West Coast Conference championships and 11-straight NCAA tournament appearances, BYU softball is gearing up to have a successful 2016 season.
“We are extremely excited about our schedule this season,” BYU head coach Gordon Eakin said. “I think it is the most challenging schedule we’ve had yet as a program. We are also excited to see how the team competes against the many top and storied programs on our schedule. I believe we have the ability to play with anyone.”
The Cougars look to win their third-consecutive WCC championship, one for each year since joining the WCC. They hope to advance past the NCAA regionals, which they have made 11 seasons in a row. BYU’s lone super regionals appearance was in the 2010 season.
This year’s roster returns two seniors, four juniors and four sophomores, while welcoming six freshmen. Of those returning, six were consistent starters in the 2015 season.
From last year’s roster, the Cougars will be missing a key starter in outfielder Lacey Hofstedt. Hofstedt earned Academic All-America third team honors and was named to the All-WCC First Team.
BYU is accustomed to successful seasons with underclassmen. In the past two WCC championship seasons, the Cougars have had at least seven freshmen on the team.
The catchers are the youngest position group this year. Freshmen Emilee Erickson and Libby Sugg are both new to the team, along with walk-on freshman Reyna Ae.
Sugg comes to BYU from the Birmingham Thunderbolts, one of the country’s top 18 Gold programs. She played on the Tennessee Fury, which won the 2014 16U ASA National Championship. Sugg lead the team in batting average, RBI and was second in home runs.
Erickson was named First Team All-State Catcher by the Arizona Interscholastic Association during high school. Both Erickson and Sugg batted over .440 during the 2015 season.
“We have two freshmen catchers that are talented,” Eakin said. “They each have their own strengths, but I think both of them will contribute behind the plate and are both very capable of playing at this level.”
BYU returns two pitchers, junior McKenna Bull and sophomore Arianna Paulson. Freshman Olivia Sanchez also joins this group.
“McKenna will be our go-to pitcher,” Eakin said. “We have been impressed with her work ethic. She has raised her game to a new level. Right there with her is Arianna Paulson. We expect big things from Ari’s sophomore year. We are also excited to see what freshman Olivia Sanchez can bring to complete our pitching staff.”
Bull had a stellar sophomore season, earning a 34-9 win-loss mark with a 2.31 ERA, ranking No. 2 in the NCAA in victories. She earned WCC Pitcher of the Year, All-WCC First Team and NFCA All-Pacific Region Third Team honors. Additionally, she was named WCC Pitcher of the Week four times throughout the season.
Paulson played in 15 games last season, pitching in all but one of those games. Her best game came against Northern Colorado were she threw four innings with two hits and four strikeouts, giving up only one earned run.
While playing for Murrieta Valley High School, Sanchez had a 1.56 ERA, 43-15 record and 359 strikeouts in her career.
The Cougars’ infield features strong returning players with senior Coco Tauali’i Bond, juniors McKenzie St. Clair, Lauren Bell and Ashley Thompson, and sophomores Caitlyn Larsen and Alexa Strid. Freshmen Courtney Kelly and Allie Hancock could also contribute to the infield.
First baseman Thompson was named to the All-WCC First Team, while third baseman Bond was named to the second team. Thompson was second on the team in RBI with 42 while hitting .313. Bond led the team in home runs with 11 last season.
Shortstop Bell led the infielders in batting average with .329 and in fielding percentage with .972. St. Clair at second base hit .303 last season with a .919 fielding percentage.
“The middle infield is an extremely important part of your team, and Bell, St. Clair and Strid work really well together,” Eakin said. “They are the engine of the team.”
Strid, who could see time in the outfield or middle infield, started in 47 of 49 games as a freshman last year. She had a .226 batting average and .899 fielding percentage.
The 2015 WCC Player of the Year Gordy Bravo returns for her senior season at centerfield. She is joined by sophomores Larsen, Strid and Madison Merrell along with freshmen Lexi Tarrow, Kelly and Hancock.
“Larsen, Merrell and Tarrow had an extremely productive fall season and we look for that to carry over,” Eakin said. “Strid is very versatile and a fiery competitor. Kelly and Hancock have made great strides and will push for playing time.”
Bravo hit .444 with four home runs, two triples, nine doubles, 76 hits and 30 RBI, notching the second-best single-season average in school history. She also had a .969 fielding percentage last season.
Bravo returns to BYU after her second summer playing with the Mexico National Team. She has a career batting average of .388 and earned All-America honors her freshman year.
“Gordy Bravo will anchor the outfield in centerfield.,” Eakin said. “She’s the glue that holds our outfield together.”
The Cougars start the 2016 season at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Arizona. Their first opponent will be San Jose State on Feb. 11 at 2 p.m. MST.