2007 Virginia Softball Preview
Feb. 6, 2007
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – One extra degree.
That’s the mantra of the 2007 Virginia softball team – one extra degree can make a big difference. At 211 degrees water is just water, but with one more degree, it boils and becomes steam powerful enough to move a locomotive. The Cavaliers enter the 2007 season with that one extra degree in mind.
Virginia finished the 2006 season with a 29-26 overall record and 7-13 mark in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but was playing well at the end of the season.
“We were playing our best softball as a team at the end of the season,” said second-year head coach Karen Johns. “That was something that we had hoped for, so we’re rather pleased with the progress we made. We felt like our pitching started to develop at the end of the year as well. We hadn’t seen much of that early in the season, but we saw it start to emerge by the end.”
The Cavaliers are looking to carry the momentum from the end of the 2006 season into 2007. With the return of seven starters and a total of nine letterwinners, UVa has a solid foundation in place to do just that. Despite the return of those seven starters, Virginia has some big shoes to fill with the loss of three key performers to graduation. The Cavaliers must replace shortstop Sara Larquier, pitcher/left fielder Erin Horn and center fielder Jessica Taylor, all four-year starters and significant contributors throughout their careers.
With the improvement of all the returning players, plus the return of two redshirts as well as the addition of four recruits, Johns believes the team is much better than a season ago.
“We definitely made some big improvements over the fall,” said Johns. “All our returning players have improved their game on the field. I think the biggest progress we’ve made is with our pitching. I think both Coty Tolar and Karla Wilburn have made the most significant strides and that is a direct result of the work that they put in off the field, in the weight room and conditioning.”
Due to the graduation of Larquier, as well as the move of fourth-year Meghan O’Leary from third base to the outfield, UVa will have a new look in the infield. The only returning starters are fourth-years Elea Crockett at second base and Brooke Sorber at first base.
First-year Abby Snyder, who was elected one of four team captains, will replace O’Leary at third base.
“We have a very talented and very aggressive athlete at third in Abby Snyder,” said Johns. “She plays with a lot of passion and she truly understands what the game asks of her and that is going to be a benefit for us. I don’t think it’s going to be a hard transition for her at all.”
First-year Kelly Haller could also see playing time at third base.
Virginia will also have a new starter at shortstop with loss of Larquier. Second-year Kierstie Cameron is penciled in as the Cavaliers’ starter. Cameron is coming off a redshirt season in 2006 after suffering a shoulder injury. In 2005, Cameron started 35 games at shortstop while hitting .235 with two home runs, five doubles and one triple.
“This is Kierstie’s first full season with us because of her shoulder injury and we are really pleased with the progress she has made,” said Johns. “Shortstop was a big, big concern for us because we weren’t able to sign anybody new to play that spot. But she has emerged, she’s been steady, and is another athlete that really understands what the game expects from her.”
Junior Casey Steffan, who enrolled at UVa in January, will back up Cameron at shortstop and could also see playing time at second base.
For the fourth consecutive season, Elea Crockett will start at second base. Crockett, a team captain, has started 160 of the 166 games in which she has appeared. A lefty who can slap or hit conventionally, Crockett will occupy the top of the Cavaliers’ line-up. The 2005 All-Southeast Region Second Team honoree is a .329 lifetime hitter.
“We have one of our steadiest players back in Elea Crockett,” said Johns. “We have some high expectations for her because she is one of our senior leaders. She understands what we are asking of her and is doing a very good job of meeting our expectations.”
Sorber started 49 games last year, including 35 at first base while hitting .204. She belted the first four home runs of her career in 2006, including a school record-tying two homers versus George Mason.
“Brooke has really stepped up her game offensively this fall and has really shown some progress that way.
McKean, a team captain, began her career at Virginia as a catcher, but knee injuries have limited her time behind the plate. McKean got off to a great start last season, hitting .378 before suffering a knee injury. She hit a career-best seven home runs in the first 25 games of the season before being hurt. McKean ended the season hitting .310 with a .590 slugging percentage.
“Amy has had some time at first base and has made great improvements on defense,” she said. “We are just trying to find a consistent place for her bat in the line-up and we thought first might be a good spot for her because of her good hands from catching.”
Haller’s natural position is as a catcher, but she is also very capable on the corners. She gives the Cavaliers an outstanding bat in the middle of the line-up.
“Kelly has probably been the most consistent at first base for us defensively,” said Johns. “She is very smart on the field and has a great understanding of the game.
“We’ll just have to wait and see who emerges in the preseason for that spot,” said Johns.
UVa returns fourth-year Michelle Salmiery behind the plate. Salmiery started 44 games at catcher in 2006, including all 20 ACC contests. She boasted a .996 fielding percentage with just one error in 281 total fielding chances, while hitting .219.
“Michelle Salmiery will be a leader for us as a senior and our starting catcher,” said Johns. “We foresee her being our starter for most of the year. She was consistent for us all last year. I think she really started to come through for us defensively in the Florida State series, doing the little things and executing the skills that we wanted her to do. She showed that throughout the entire fall as well.”
In addition to playing the corners, Haller will also see time behind the plate.
“Kelly is a great addition; she’s an extremely smart catcher,” said Johns. “She cut two-tenths of a second off her throws to second base, which was really the only thing this fall that we were concerned with, so we are really happy with her progress. But Michelle will definitely be our senior leader there.”
The Cavaliers will have to replace the innings that Horn threw last season. Virginia will look to fourth-year Coty Tolar and second-year Karla Wilburn to step up their production in the circle. UVa needs both pitchers to stay healthy to have a successful season. The lone newcomer to the staff is first-year Nicole Koren.
Tolar was 5-5 with a 3.00 ERA and a school record five saves last season. She made 29 appearances with 12 starts and three complete games.
“Coty is finally healthy after several injuries and has really dedicated herself, probably more so this fall than any point in time in her softball career,” said Johns. “It is really showing on the field. She’s seen great results in that she’s throwing the ball very effectively and has command of all of her pitches. If Coty can stay the course, she will throw some big games for us this year because of her talent level and what she is doing preparation-wise.”
Wilburn, who redshirted the 2005 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, had some very impressive performances last season. Overall, Wilburn was 7-7 with a 3.78 ERA in 26 appearances. She was second on the team with 17 games started and four complete games.
“Karla has really committed herself in the weight room and has come out throwing the ball much harder and has much better command of her stuff than she did last year,” said Johns.”
Koren is the third member of the pitching staff and she brings an entirely different look than Tolar and Wilburn.
“Nicole had some really tough injuries in the fall that hindered her progress,” said Johns. “She has some of the best stuff I’ve seen in my coaching career and now it’s just a matter of staying consistent with the physical aspect of pitching. Nicole is very competitive and tough mentally on the field; very much a game player and she’ll definitely add some strength to our pitching staff.
“We are going to lean on Coty and Karla,” said Johns. “The have really developed a true understanding of what that position demands from them and that never changes. The only thing that changes is how they approach it. As long as they keep controlling that, they are going to win some games for us and have some success. Their mental approach is the key to success.”
The Cavaliers have six players on the team who are outfielders, so Johns and her staff have a number of different playing combinations at their disposal. UVa must replace Taylor, a second-team All-ACC performer, as well as Jackie Greer, who graduated after starting a total of 27 games in the outfield last season.
The player returning with the most experience is third-year Lindsey Preuss, who started 22 games in left field last season. Preuss was also one of Virginia’s most consistent hitters last year, posting a .281 batting average with 14 extra-base hits, including a team-best 10 doubles.
O’Leary began the 2006 season in left field, but ended up being the Cavaliers starting third baseman. She has made the shift back to the outfield and should patrol center field for UVa in 2007.
Third-year captain Whitney Holstun has been converted to an outfielder after playing mainly first and third base last season. She will be battling for the starting spot in left field. In 2006, Holstun hit .257 with three home runs and 17 RBI.
After redshirting the 2006 season with a knee injury, first-year Sarah Tacke is expected to start in right field. Tacke should also be a solid contributor offensively for the Cavaliers.
When she’s not pitching, Koren will be vying for playing time in the outfield. Koren also possesses a powerful bat.
Sorber could see time in the outfield in addition to her role at first base.
“When I think of the outfield, I don’t really think of individuals,” said Johns. “All of them have worked so incredibly hard and because we do lack depth numbers-wise, all of the outfielders will make a big contribution this year. We have one of our team captains out there, Whitney Holstun, and she has blossomed as a leader. Meghan O’Leary and Sarah Tacke have some great strengths as well. Lindsey Preuss and Nicole Koren are two more talented outfielders who will do great things for us.
“Each one of them has done a great job so they are putting a little pressure on the coaches as to who’s going to play. It’s just a matter of matchups, who we’re playing, who’s going to help us, and who is the most consistent defensively.”
“I think we are a better team and you always hope that’s going to result in more wins, but we are definitely a better team,” said Johns. “We are physically and mentally better, and cohesiveness and chemistry-wise we are better. Throw a big challenging schedule at the team and hope that they respond and the results are what we would like them to be. In this sport you are only as good your pitching and everybody knows that, so as long as we can stay consistent and keep the same approach every day, I think we will be in good shape.”