Senior Caschjen Atagi, senior Paige Affleck, junior Tiffany Messerschmidt, junior Jessica Dugas, senior Jessica Fitu, junior Delaney Willard, senior Kristin Delahoussaye and sophomore JC Clayton (Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)
After the most successful season in the history of the program in 2010, BYU softball will aim to build on its growing reputation as one of the best programs in the country in 2011.
BYU made its first-ever NCAA Super Regional appearance last year after sweeping three-straight games at Austin, Texas, in the Regional, including two wins against East Carolina and a victory over No. 7-seed Texas. The Cougars ended the season at Arizona in the Super Regional, the eventual national runner-up, but not before earning the most wins in school history with a 46-13 record and achieving their highest ranking ever, finishing 15th in the country.
The Cougars also claimed their second-straight Mountain West Conference title with a 12-3 conference record, the fourth championship in the last six years for BYU.
BYU lost MWC Player of the Year Angeline Quiocho, who smashed multiple BYU records and finished in the top 10 nationally in half a dozen categories. Combining her numbers with fellow graduate Andrea Ramirez, the Cougars lose a combined 47 home runs and 41-percent of their RBI production from last season.
But BYU head coach Gordon Eakin isn’t concerned about the lost production or a dip in rising national prominence thanks to a deep, multi-talented squad in 2011.
“The home runs certainly won’t be to the point they were last year,” Eakin said. “Any time you lose 50 home runs in two players, which is essentially what we did, that’s going to dent your lineup. But I wouldn’t think we’ll be too far off of last year’s total. We’ll score with the long ball, we’ll score with the short game and we’ll score with speed.”
BYU returns 11 letterwinners from last year’s squad, including seven starters. The Cougar seniors, including three-year starting pitcher Paige Affleck, catcher Jessica Fitu, second baseman Kristin Delahoussaye and power hitter Caschjen Atagi will look to cap off their careers at BYU with another conference championship and deep run into the postseason.
Known for her expertise on and off the field, Affleck enters her final season already as BYU’s career leader in wins, strikeouts and innings pitched—passing former teammate Christie Zinanti who graduated last season. An All-Region, All-MWC and Academic All-District pick last year after winning a school-record 32 games, Affleck is an All-American and Academic All-American candidate who will carry the majority of the load in the circle for BYU while also finishing up her master’s thesis in just her fourth year of school.
“She’s been there, she’s done it, and she knows what it takes,” Eakin said. “She’s committed and working hard.”
With the loss of Zinanti, BYU brings in freshman Tori Almond, a two-time Utah Gatorade Player of the Year who will play a significant role, while sophomore Hannah Howell also returns after seeing considerable time in 2010.
Reprising her role as the best catcher in the league last season, Fitu returns for BYU after batting .374 with 65 hits in addition to a stint during the summer on the USA Futures National Team. This year, the senior hopes to get back to her sophomore-year form when she was named an All-American after racking up 17 home runs and 16 doubles.
“With her summertime experience with the Futures team, I expect Jessica to have a banner year,” Eakin said. “She’s motivated, she’s gained more confidence and more experience, and I think she’ll have a very good year.”
Other catchers on the team include Delahoussaye, who will spell Fitu mainly on five-game weekends, and senior April Thorson, a transfer from BYU-Hawaii.
At first base, freshman Katie Manuma and junior Stacie Graham will battle for the starting spot following Ramirez’s graduation. Manuma, the Hawaii Gatorade Player of the Year, is a great defensive stop who will take up some of the power BYU lost. Graham is an NJCAA All-American transfer from Salt Lake Community College and one of the best all-around athletes on the team who can play multiple positions in the infield.
A stalwart at second base, Delahoussaye returns as the emotional leader for the Cougars. A clutch hitter with an outstanding glove, BYU has high expectations for “House.”
“I think House is an All-American talent,” Eakin said. “A lot of the things we do defensively are around House. I think she’s the best second baseman in the country. If we have a cornerstone or a focal point we work around, it’s Kristin at second base.”
Continuing around the bases, sophomore JC Clayton played one of the best freshman seasons in conference history after leading the conference in batting average (.430), hits (80) and on-base percentage (.476) in 2010. Starting the bulk of the season at shortstop, Clayton’s production led to the newcomer earning MWC Freshman of the Year and All-MWC honors.
Clayton, freshman Madisen Robb, junior Krista Hicks and Atagi are all in the mix to gain playing time at shortstop and third base in 2011. Robb, a Vernal, Utah, native, was an All-State honoree who is already pushing for playing time. Hicks, a defensive specialist, returns, while Atagi may see time at the corner or in her usual spot at left field.
Junior Tiffany Messerschmidt looks to be a regular in the lineup again after nagging injuries limited her last season. In 2008, Messerschmidt batted .357 with 55 hits.
“Tiffany is going to be an offensive force this year,” Eakin said. “Her speed and what she does in the short game is irreplaceable. I think she’s going to have a breakout year for us.”
Sophomore Alexandra Hudson, who batted .319 last season, and junior Jessica Dugas, a mid-year insert into the starting lineup who led the MWC with a perfect fielding percentage in center field, will also vie for playing time in the outfield.
Junior Delaney Willard will start for the Cougars in right field. Willard is one of the best pure hitters on the team and has stepped up as one of BYU’s upperclassmen.
“She’s shown signs this year already that she’s improved her leadership skills and her confidence levels,” Eakin said. “I expect Delaney to have a great year.”
Freshmen outfielder Carly Duckworth, infielder Jenna Engel and outfielder Lacey Millett each join BYU right out of high school and will look for playing time while junior outfielder Bailie Hicken, a transfer from Dixie State, will redshirt in 2011.
The Cougars will face possibly their most challenging schedule yet, facing16 NCAA tournament teams from 2010, including two games against defending national champion UCLA.
“We have a very talented team and a deep team,” Eakin said. “I think we can sustain injuries, sicknesses and slumps and remain very competitive. We’ve got a group that works hard. Along with their talent they are confident and we’re looking forward to another special year.”