2003 Virginia Softball Season Preview
Feb. 14, 2003
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – After losing six letterwinners, including four starters, and arguably the best player in school history, one would think that Virginia would be in a “rebuilding season” in 2003. Fifth-year head coach Cheryl Sprangel and the Cavalier softball team speak to the contrary about the 2003 campaign. As a matter of fact, the coaching staff and team believe they have a chance to be even better than last year’s squad.
Part of the optimism for Virginia’s chances for success comes from the return of 11 letterwinners, all of whom have starting experience. The other major factor is an intangible – team chemistry. Last season, Sprangel thought the Cavaliers had all the talent necessary to go farther than any softball team in school history, however, the team lacked the chemistry to go along with that talent. Sprangel sees team chemistry as a strength in 2003 and that chemistry could help overcome the loss of two-time All-American Kristen Dennis and the three other starters.
“It is going to be tough without Kristen just because she was one person we could always go to in a difficult situation,” said Sprangel. “She always gave us the opportunity to win games. I think this year what is going to help us be more cohesive is that there is not going to be a Kristen Dennis to carry the team. The players have already realized that if the team is going to go somewhere this year it is going to be everyone together as a team. What I’ve seen so far is everyone working hard together, because if we are going to do something that’s the way we are going to accomplish it – as a team.”
The 2003 UVa squad features four fourth-years, all of who have significant starting experience. The Cavaliers also have four third-years with two starting throughout their collegiate careers. The second-year class numbers three, while the remaining six players on the team are first-years. In addition to Dennis, the Cavaliers lost Erin Allinder and Kelly McCabe to graduation. Virginia posted a solid 45-22 record last season, but struggled with a 1-6 mark in Atlantic Coast Conference games. In tournament play against ACC foes, UVa posted a 6-2 record with the two losses coming in the ACC Championship.
The Cavaliers return players with starting experience at every position of the infield. “We return the core of our infield and it is the most experienced area of the team. If we have to rely on experience it is going to be the infield.”
Returning as Virginia’s starter at third base is fourth-year Ruby Rojas. Rojas, a three-year starter, has earned All-ACC honors the past two seasons and was an All-Southeast Region selection in 2001. “The experience that Ruby has had at third base is really going to help her. She’s settled in nicely. She knows the position and has learned how to react better side-to-side and to bunts. Her experience at third is a definite plus – if she is not there, we feel the difference, particularly her speed at covering the bunt.”
In addition to her vast experience in the field, Rojas is also one of the Cavaliers’ top offensive threats. She hit .282 while starting 62 games last season. Rojas, a career .329 hitter, was second to Dennis on the team with 42 RBI and hit a career-high 11 home runs. “Ruby didn’t quite have the year hitting last year that we would have liked, but at any point she’s capable of carrying the team. She hit well in the fall and also competed for the Venezuelan National Team in December and hit well. We are going to count on her to be a leader for us at the plate.”
Also returning to the Cavalier lineup at third base is third-year Tracy Sherman. Sherman, who played in 35 games last season with 17 starts, has battled injuries throughout her career, but is healthy now. She hit .218 with five extra-base hits in 2002. “Tracy is working really hard and has stayed healthy enough to go through conditioning and that is going to help her become the player she is capable of being. Tracy is an excellent reacting third baseman – not much gets by her. She is still strengthening her arm and improving her quickness in covering bunts. Tracy is a very good hitter. She makes good contact all the time and can make the biggest impact on the team with her hitting. We are hoping she can be the designated player or come in during crucial situations and get pinch hits. She has shown a lot of ability to come up with pinch hits in clutch situations which a lot of players can’t do.”
Starting at shortstop for the third consecutive year for Virginia is third-year Heather Field, who was a second-team All-Southeast Region pick in 2002. A smooth fielder with a strong arm, Field is also one of the Cavaliers’ top offensive threats. She was one of only two players to start all 67 games last season and has played and started all but one game in her career. Field hit a career-best .374 with 71 hits, including 15 doubles, in 190 at-bats in 2002. She drove in 32 runs, scored 39 times and drew 33 walks. Field also led UVa with 18 stolen bases and 12 sacrifice hits. “Heather is starting to catch the eyes of a lot of people and has the ability to be an All-American. She is extremely competitive and is willing to do anything to win. Heather worked extremely hard all summer and is set to have a terrific season. She is definitely one of the best shortstops around – there’s no doubt about that. She’s physically strong, she can make the play in the hole, and she’s got a strong arm. Her goal now is to be an All-American and within in the next two years I have no doubt that goal is going to be reached.”
The Cavaliers return second-year Lauren Dennis, who was a part-time starter, at second base. Dennis drew 21 starting assignments at second base in 2002 and will assume the starting role with the departure of Jill Bumler. “Lauren is a very solid and consistent fielder. In the fall, Lauren settled in nicely and was very consistent. She showed her ability to hit in the fall and has been working hard on her hitting and has improved greatly.”
Third-year Hannah Owings returns as Virginia’s starting first baseman. Last season, Owings made 57 of her 62 starts at first base and registered a .974 fielding percentage. At the plate, she hit .243 with 43 hits in 177 at-bats. Owings tied Kristen Dennis for team-high honors in sacrifice flies with four and drove in 20 runs as well. “Hannah has really come along – I am very proud of her because of the adjustment she has made to playing first base. Now she loves the position and keeps working hard to continue to learn it. She has worked hard on her quickness to cover bunts and improved her reactions at first base. She is tough mentally and ready to go this year. We went to her in the fall to replace Kristen Dennis in the four spot and she stepped up and filled that role very well. She has been working hard to improve her hitting and I think she can provide the consistency we need from the fourth hitter.”
The Cavaliers return two catchers from last season, including fourth-year starter Brit Gore. UVa’s other catcher with collegiate experience is second-year Jenn Wynn, while first-year Sara Larquier joins the team to form a formidable catching trio. Stephanie Calhoun is the lone catcher from last season not returning.
Gore has started 117 games during her career, including 34 last season. In limited at-bats, she hit .154 (2-13) last season. Gore is an excellent defensive catcher and posted a .989 fielding percentage in 2002 with just three errors in 270 total fielding chances. “Brit has quite a bit of experience behind the plate. She is the catcher that handles the pitchers the best and also has the experience calling pitches. All of our pitchers feel comfortable with Brit behind the plate – that’s what Brit brings to the team. She has a strong arm and the ability to throw people out. The only question with Brit this year is a back injury that kept her out quite a bit in the fall and how healthy she is going to stay.”
In limited playing time as a first-year in 2002, Wynn hit .259. She had seven hits, including two doubles, in 27 at-bats and drove in six run in 16 games. She started eight times as the Cavaliers’ catcher. “The exciting thing about Jenn is that she is hitting the ball well, which is a big plus. Jenn has stepped up her play this year. She does an excellent job blocking, however, what she needs to work on most is calling pitches and just getting game experience.”
Larquier is a very versatile player who can play second base and shortstop in addition to catcher. “One of Sara’s biggest assets is her versatility whether it be to play second, catcher or shortstop. That’s one thing I know for the next four years, I can move her around to wherever I need her.” In 2002 Larquier will see the majority of her playing time at catcher with the possibility of getting some playing time at second base or shortstop. “Sara is along the same lines as Jenn Wynn in terms of needing to get more game experience. She has some game experience, but needs to learn what pitches to call in what situations. Sara needs to work on blocking and keeping her concentration all the time. She definitely has a strong arm and has the ability to throw runners out. Sara has a great capability to add to the team offensively as well.”
“It will help that we have three catchers this year because we were limited last year. If any of the catchers can provide consistency hitting that is one thing that is going to earn them more playing time. We are always looking to put players in the lineup who can give us a boost offensively.”
Virginia lost one key starter in the outfield with the graduation of center fielder Kelly McCabe. However, the Cavaliers have three returning outfielders, including a pair of experienced fourth-years. Johanna Kaiser started 43 games in left field last season, while Katie Weinberg made 22 starts in the outfield. Second-year M.K. White also gained valuable experience last season with 38 starts.
“We lost Kelly McCabe who provided an offensive spark for us. Despite losing Kelly, I think our outfield will be just as strong with Katie Weinberg taking over the starting role in center field. I feel very good about the outfield this year. Other than the infield, the outfield is our most experienced area.”
Kaiser returns as a starter in left field for the third year consecutive season. She played in 52 games last season and hit .241 with seven doubles, one home run, 10 RBI and 18 runs scored. Kaiser was second on the team with 10 sacrifice hits. She was also perfect on 40 fielding opportunities. “Johanna got to settle into left field last year. Now she has learned the position and can get a jump off the ball and is able to make diving catches.”
Weinberg, who has been a part-time starter in left and center field the past two seasons, inherits the starting role in center from McCabe. Weinberg hit .118 with eight hits in limited at-bats last season. Among her hits was a home run against IUPUI. She also scored 17 runs while playing in 54 games. “I think Katie is more than capable of being the leader we need in center field. She is able to make the snap decisions as to who takes the ball in the outfield and can be the general we need in center field.”
“Johanna and Katie both have the ability to hit the ball. The one thing that hurt them last year, like it would any player, is that they both ended up splitting playing time. Because of that, they weren’t able to build any confidence at the plate and get any consistency in their hitting. This year they will be playing on a more consistent basis and their hitting should come along much better. It’s a confidence builder that they know they are going to play. They should be able to relax a bit more this year, knowing that they don’t need to get a hit each time to stay in the lineup. I want Johanna and Katie to relax and do the best they can.”
White is UVa’s third returning outfielder and will start in right field. She appeared in 52 games last year with 38 starts, including 30 in right field. White hit .250 (27-108) with 19 runs and seven RBI. “M.K. is starting to reach her potential. She is an excellent outfielder and has a really strong arm that makes her a natural to take over in right field. She has done a great job working hard. M.K. showed her ability to hit last year, but struggled a bit this fall. It’s just a matter of her getting into a grove. I feel real confident with her taking over in right field. I actually think we will be stronger defensively in right field this year with M.K.”
Virginia also has a pair of first-year outfielders, Jessica Taylor and Rachel Goings, on the roster. Taylor should see time in the outfield, but will also be able to reek havoc offensively with her speed. Goings made the team as a walk-on in the fall and should contribute to the team on the basepaths.
According to Sprangel, Taylor has tons of potential. “Jessica has raw potential – I can see her being another Kelly McCabe. The one thing I wasn’t sure about with Jessica is whether she had the quickness in her wrists to keep up with Division I pitching. But during the fall, I saw the quickness in her wrists needed to succeed at this level. She is going to cause headaches for people with her ability to make contact with the ball combined with her speed. When she is in the game, she could be in the one or two spot. The one thing Jessica needs is experience in the outfield – getting a jump on the ball and working on diving. Offensively, Jessica has the ability and I think it’s just a matter of getting comfortable defensively.”
Goings gives the Cavaliers more speed, particularly on the base paths. “Rachel is a role player and knows her role. She is working in the outfield and trying to gain experience and consistency in getting a jump on the ball.”
The Cavaliers have a completely new look in their pitching staff with just one hurler returning from last year’s team. The lone returnee is third-year Joanna Barstad and she will be joined in the circle by three first-years – Jackie Greer, Christina Grimm and Erin Horn. The Cavaliers graduated second-team All-American Kristen Dennis and Erin Allinder, while Val Sevilla transferred.
After pitching in the shadow of Kristen Dennis the last two years, Barstad will assume the role as UVa’s top pitcher. In 2002, Barstad started 13 games and was 8-3 with a 1.80 ERA while pitching 77.2 innings. She allowed 76 hits while striking out 34 and walking 11. Barstad was 10-1 with a 1.60 ERA as a first-year in 2001.
“Jo Barstad is primed for the season. She is working very hard and knows that after two years it is her time. She is ready and excited about this season. In the fall, she showed that she can be the pitcher that we need to go to against tough opponents. She pitched a game against Penn State that showed that she wants to be the one with the ball. In addition to starting the tougher games, Jo will most likely be the person we go when we need relief in crucial situations. There is not a person on the team that works harder than Jo Barstad and I know that will continue for the next two years.”
In addition to her ability in the circle, Barstad is a very good hitter. Last season, she was 8-27 for a .296 batting average and also scored five runs and drove in two more. Barstad can also play first base for the Cavaliers.
Despite being a first-year, Erin Horn is probably the most experienced pitcher on the team, taking into consideration summer ball. “Erin is exciting to watch and is a pitcher that I wouldn’t call a first-year. I think she is very mature and shows a lot of confidence on the mound. She showed that during summer ball and throughout the fall. She has pitched a lot of tough games in summer ball and is the type of pitcher that doesn’t get rattled. I think that is important because even if Jo Barstad does well, we still need a second pitcher that we can go to. I think that Erin is going to be the person we can go to and start the second game of a doubleheader or go against a top team. I also feel because Erin is so composed and confident that I will be able to go to her in a lot of relief situations.”
Christina Grimm comes to Virginia with just one full year of pitching experience under her belt. She has tons of potential as a pitcher and Sprangel can see her being “as strong as Kristen Dennis down the road.” “Right now she just needs to work hard and gain experience. She is relatively new to pitching so she needs to gain consistency with her pitches. When her pitches work, they are awesome and move a lot. She has certain pitches that will be hard for batters to hit. The thing she needs to work on is consistently getting her pitches to go where she wants. That is just a matter of practicing, getting experience, confidence and maturing. I am going to ease her into game situations. Sometimes I am a little more protective of players like Christina who have a lot of potential. I want to bring them along a little slower. Eventually she is going to contribute a lot to the team as a pitcher.”
Grimm will also contribute to the Cavaliers offensively as a designated player. She is an excellent hitter with a lot of power. “Christina is a very consistent hitter that will make her a good candidate to be the designated player.” In time, Grimm could also see playing time at first base.
Rounding out Virginia’s pitching staff is Jackie Greer. “Jackie is another pitcher with a lot of potential. She spent the fall working on the mechanics with her hips and her wrist snap. She has the ability to throw pretty hard. Because she had some injury setbacks in the fall, I’m not quite sure what she is going to be able to provide. When she is healthy, there is no doubt in my mind she has the potential to do some very good things.”
In addition to pitching, Greer could see playing time as an outfielder.
“We know we are not going to get anywhere counting on someone else to do it. I think everyone on the team knows they have to step up and they have taken the responsibility to work really hard to make sure they can contribute. If we do something this year it will be together totally as a team. That attitude came forth in the fall and I’ve seen the whole team working really hard together – conditioning, weightlifting, hitting – just everything they do. Regardless of who we are playing, the team feels that they can step up and beat them if we do it together as a team. They realize any one person can step up at a crucial time and help the team win.”