(Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)
PROVO, Utah – With six starters returning from a team that won its fifth consecutive conference championship, the BYU women’s softball team will look to start quickly in 2014.
“This year’s team is very young, not only in age but also in experience,” BYU head coach Gordon Eakin said. “However, it is extremely talented. We currently have five seniors, two juniors, two sophomores and eight freshmen. Of the seven upperclassmen, we only have four that have significant game experience. One of the strengths of the upperclassmen is they all possess great leadership qualities. That leadership will be needed to help guide this young team.”
The Cougars return over 70 percent of their offense from last year’s team that finished the regular season winning 16 of their final 17 games to advance to their ninth straight NCAA regional. However, there may be times when the new faces will get a chance to show their skill set.
“At times we may have up to five freshmen and two sophomores in the starting lineup,” Eakin said. “This year we expect to continue to be highly competitive, especially as we gain some game experience. Our goals are no different than any other year, win a conference championship and make a competitive run in the NCAA tournament.”
BYU expects no less from this year’s team and looks to improve with an influx of new faces to mix with returners from last year’s team.
“The pitcher position will be anchored by senior Tori Almond and two strong freshmen - McKenna Bull and Ashley Thompson,” Eakin said. “Katie Manuma will play a relief role again this season when called on.”
Almond returns for her final season as a Cougar after she finished the 2013 season with a 12-8 record and a 2.88 ERA. In BYU history she is fourth in career wins, strikeouts and shutouts. Bull and Thompson both come to BYU after heralded high school careers. Bull was named first-team all state three times in her career and ended with a 53-17 record. Thompson made headlines her senior year breaking the Washington strikeout record and pitched seven straight no-hitters on her way being named as Washington’s Gatorade Player of the Year for softball.
BYU does not return a catcher with starting experience and will rely on freshmen Mercedes O’Connor and Sydney Broderick to lead the way. O’Connor hit .400 as a senior at Edison High School and redshirted last year while nursing a back injury. Broderick comes to BYU after batting over .500 for her high school in both her junior and senior seasons.
“The infield will be anchored by freshman catcher Sydney Broderick,” Eakin said. “Sydney has a cannon for an arm, which will make it difficult for opponents to steal on her. She is a very tough player and is getting better every day. Redshirt freshman Mercedes O'Connor and junior Megan Arnold will also see time at the catching position. Mercedes may also see time at third base or even in the outfield."
“Senior Katie Manuma will move from first base where she started the last three years and will play third base,” Eakin said. “Katie is a very athletic third baseman and will provide power and RBI's in the middle of the batting order.”
Manuma led the team in home runs and RBIs last season. She will be joined by sophomore Coco Tauali’i as a returning starter in the infield. Tauali’i was one of the main contributors to the late season success last year batting, .308 in conference play with two homeruns and 17 RBIs.
“Coco and senior Ashlee Robinson will play second base,” Eakin said. “Both players have versatile roles within the team. When Katie Manuma goes in to pitch, Ashlee will move to third base where she started as a sophomore. Tauali’i can play shortstop, second base and is a very good outfielder. Both players provide us flexibility in making our line up strong. Tauali’i provided a strong bat offensively this fall.”
“Freshman Lauren Bell will play shortstop and has performed extremely well both offensively and defensively through the fall practice season,” Eakin said. Bell comes to BYU out of Murray High School as a dangerous slap hitter. She will have a tough task to fill the hole left by four-year starter JC Clayton.
“Senior Jenna Goar, junior Megan Arnold and freshman Ashley Thompson will play first base; Thompson will also pitch,” Eakin said. All three players bring power to the plate. Goar has proven to be one of the Cougars’ most effective pinch hitters in her three years at BYU. Arnold has played in much of the same role for BYU hitting four home runs, including one grand slam, in limited plate appearances. Thompson comes to BYU as the state of Washington’s career leader in home runs.
“The outfield will be anchored by sophomore All-American Gordy Bravo,” Eakin said. “She will be joined by the strong and athletic core of senior Carly Duckworth, sophomore Coco Tauali’i, junior Lacey Millett-Hofstedt and freshman Mckenzie St. Clair.”
Bravo returns as the team’s leading hitter from 2013. In the history of BYU freshmen, she ranked top five in batting average, hits, RBIs and on-base percentage. Duckworth has been a solid for the Cougars batting, .268 for her career and Millett-Hofstedt enters the year only four stolen bases behind the career record at BYU. Last year Millett-Hofstedt set the single season stolen base record with 25.
BYU will face some big names this season including the preseason No. 1 Tennessee along with No. 3 Washington, No. 8 Oregon and No. 22 Stanford. The Cougars will play this season in the West Coast Conference along with four of their foes from the Pacific Coast Softball Conference and Pacific in the sport’s first year in the WCC. The schedule includes games against 12 teams that advanced to the 2013 NCAA regionals and 19 teams that finished with winning records.
The Cougars will travel to six tournaments. They start play in St. George, Utah, taking part in the Red Desert Classic. The first game of the tournament will be Feb. 6 against in-state rival Weber State at 2 p.m. MST at the Canyons Complex.