PROVO, Utah - New faces and new places bring intrigue and excitement to the BYU softball team as it begins its 2012 season.
After playing their first 11 seasons as a program in the Mountain West Conference, BYU will be members of the Western Athletic Conference this year, facing WAC programs Hawai’i, Fresno State, Louisiana Tech, Nevada, New Mexico State, San Jose State and Utah State.
Coming off its third-straight conference title and fifth in the last seven years, the Cougars hope that different surrounding still bring the same results in 2012.
BYU will again be led by head coach Gordon Eakin who is coming off his third-consecutive MWC Coach of the Year award and will be entering his 10th season as head coach of the Cougars.
“Combining our usual competitive preseason schedule with great teams from the WAC this year should be very challenging,” said Eakin, who has a 371-160 (.699) career record. “With our schedule and a young team like we have this year there is more uncertainty than in the past.”
BYU’s 2012 schedule includes nine teams ranked in the preseason polls, including a contest against preseason No. 1 and defending national champion Arizona State. BYU will play a total 22 games against opponents who played in the 2011 NCAA Tournament.
Players gone to graduation include All-MWC performer Caschjen Atagi, three-time All-Region second baseman Kristin Delahoussaye, two-time All-American and BYU career RBI leader Jessica Fitu and Paige Affleck, a 2011 Easton All-American and BYU’s career wins, strikeouts and ERA leader.
With the loss of leadership that has helped BYU to seven-straight NCAA tournament appearances and the same number of 40-win seasons, Eakin hopes to find a new crop of “go-to” players to fill in key roles.
“We have the talent, but how fast they can grow early on in the season is the key,” Eakin said.
Both Eakin and BYU pitching coach Vaughn Alvey cited the Cougar pitching staff as the strength of the team. Tori Almond, a sophomore from South Jordan, Utah, is slated in the top spot of BYU’s rotation after posting a 10-4 record and four shutouts in 23 appearances in 2011. With five solid pitches in her arsenal, Almond could have a breakout year.
Junior Hannah Howell also returns having appeared in 51 career games with a 3.16 ERA. Howell’s differing pitching style from Almond (and her 5-foot-3 height compared to Almond’s 6-foot-1) provides the coaching staff a different look to throw at opponents. The newcomer to the staff is North Carolina native Caroline Umphlett, a right-hander who throws extremely hard and has performed well during practice.
With Fitu graduating, the starting catcher spot has been contested this preseason by three freshman. Everett, Wash., native Anna Hudson a tough competitor who has stepped up in practice, will be the likely starter to begin the season. Shelbi Everett, a two-time All-State performer from Murray, Utah, will also compete at the position as well as a third freshman, Megan Arnold.
The Cougar infield will be anchored this season by junior JC Clayton who will start at either shortstop or second base. Clayton led the conference in each of the last two seasons in hits while posting a career .402 batting average, the second-best mark in BYU history.
Other probable starters in the infield include senior Stacie Toney and senior Jessica Dugas. Toney will look to switch from first to second base this season and is a smart fielder who can bat for power or placement at the plate. Dugas, an All-MWC honoree as BYU’s centerfielder in 2011, is coming off a career year with 50 hits and a .345 average and will look to use her speed to start at third base.
At first base, sophomores Katie Manuma and Jenna Goar and the freshman Arnold are still competing for the starting role. Manuma supplies a strong bat and would bat in the middle of the order to pick up for some of the big bats lost to graduation. Goar is a solid defender out of Littleton, Colo., while Arnold is another big hitter who could also see time at the designated hitter position.
Others competing for time in the infield include senior Krista Hicks, sophomore Madisen Robb and sophomore transfer Ashlee Brawley. Hicks, a co-captain along with Clayton, Delaney Willard and Tiffany Messerschmidt, is a smart fielder with great defensive skills who could see time at shortstop. Robb, who hit three home runs and started 13 games last season, is an all-around athlete who will compete for time at second base while Brawley, a potential redshirt this season, joins the Cougars after playing a year at the University of Arizona.
In right field, Willard will return after starting in 51 games last season. A power hitter, Willard hit a career-high 11 home runs in 2011 including five in a span of four-straight games, a streak that tied her for fifth on NCAA all-time list for consecutive games with a home run. Behind Willard will be Bailie Hicken, a speedy junior coming off a redshirt year.
Sophomore Carly Duckworth and junior Alexandra Hudson will fill in the middle at center field. Duckworth started 39 games her freshman year in leftfield and earned All-MWC honors after ranking fourth in on-base percentage, fifth in runs scored and 10th in batting average during conference play. Hudson boasts some of the best defensive skills on the team and played in 40 games last year with no errors in the field.
In the final spot in left field, Messerschmidt will likely start with sophomore Lacey Millett also seeing some time. Messerschmidt spent the majority of her time in the DP spot while battling injuries last season but managed to hit .350 with an on-base percentage of .441.
Millett, a pinch runner in 2011 whose 14 stolen bases tied for fifth-most in a season in BYU history, will look for more playing time after progressing nicely this preseason.