Softball Preseason Practice Underway
Jan. 19, 2006
After its record-breaking offensive year, the Massachusetts softball team has set high goals for the 2006 season. The Minutewomen broke records last year in RBI, home runs, doubles, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Head Coach Elaine Sortino will be the first person to tell you that this is the best offense that UMass has ever had. The Minutewomen return much of their offensive production from a year ago and are bringing in a couple of freshman that could make immediate impacts. Couple that with a solid pitching staff and you have a team that looks to make a deep postseason run.
Championship teams are built on pitching and defense and the Minutewomen have a lot of that. Senior Jenna Busa anchors the pitching staff. After starting slowly in 2005, Busa turned it on in the second half of the season and was named the MVP of the A-10 Tournament. Busa pitched every inning of UMass 17th A-10 championship run and allowed just one earned run. Busa closed out the regular season with back-to-back no-hitters against Quinnipiac and Rhode Island and had a two-home run, six-RBI game against the Rams.
UMass will feature the Killer B's in the circle, as freshman Brandice Balschmiter will start the season as the No. 2 pitcher. Sophomore Maggie Feix was UMass' No. 3 pitcher last season, but just had reconstructive shoulder surgery so she will be rehabbing for much of the year. If UMass needs a third pitcher, they will likely turn to freshman Whitney Mollica. Mollica will primarily play third base.
"Jenna has much more consistency in her speed this year," said Sortino. "I think she will have a lot more movement on her ball and be able to really attack the batter. Her curve ball is breaking much better. Offensively, we are looking for her to make a solid contribution in the order.
Balschmiter comes to Amherst after a very successful high school career. The Newark, N.Y., native finished her career with school records of 646 strikeouts and a 0.56 ERA.
"Brandice is getting better every day," said Sortino. "She is really learning what she needs to do to become a great pitcher on the mound. She brings a great physical presence out there and is learning how to use her body to get her weight behind the ball. She is really figuring things out and is learning very quickly for a freshman."
The key to a great pitching staff is the battery mate and the Minutewomen have a rock behind the plate. First-team Easton All-American KJ Kelley begins her senior season as the school's all-time home run leader. Kelley broke her own school-record with 14 home runs last season and every dinger she hits this year will be adding to her own career record. Kelley improved her patience at the plate last season and compiled an impressive .517 on-base percentage. She also batted a team-best .382 with 12 doubles, 42 RBI, 33 walks and a .779 slugging percentage. Opponents ran just 28 times on her and she threw out 32 percent of would-be base stealers.
"We are looking for KJ to generate more consistent power for us in the middle of the order this year," said Sortino. "Last year, she had one of the best offensive seasons of any UMass hitter ever and is looking to improve on that this year. She handles the pitchers very well and can really manage the game. She has a great arm and is a good field general for us."
Kelley's back up will likely be freshman Emily Wehr. Wehr played some time in fall ball and according to Sortino it was a very smooth transition. Wehr was named Wheeler High School's (Ga.) Best Offensive Player four times and has been a world-class weightlifter. Wehr has competed in USA Weightlifting competitions all over the United States and Canada.
"Every pitcher should have a great catcher and that is what we have in Emily," said Sortino. "They are quiet people and you don't notice them until they are gone. Emily is a smart player who can play on the corner or behind the plate. She gets things done in a hurry and is very strong. She is one of our many potentially deadly hitters."
UMass has the luxury of a lot of depth in the infield this year. Starting at first base, Sortino can mix and match between a pair of Amanda's. Junior Amanda Morin played the majority of time at first base last year and really turned it on offensively in the second half of the year. Morin finished the season with a .289 batting average and also had 34 runs scored, seven doubles, two triples, four home runs, 14 RBI and six stolen bases.
"Amanda Morin is much more consistent offensively," said Sortino. "She has really figured some things out in terms of being a good hitter. She can do some things in her small-ball game that makes her very dangerous. Defensively, she keeps getting better and better."
Also vying for time at first base is junior Amanda Acampora. Acampora made the most of her playing time last season with some very clutch hits and was one of the Minutewomen's best pinch hitters.
"Amanda Acampora has really come on in summer and fall ball in terms of being a powerful hitter," said Sortino. "I think she is going to be a viable part of our offense this year and a major contributor in the middle of our line-up."
UMass will have a lot of options in the middle of the infield. Sophomore Stacy Cullington is one of the candidates to replace 2004 A-10 Player of the Year Hilary Puglia. Cullington played 42 games last year, mostly at second base, and batted .311. She had seven doubles, a triple, seven home runs, 25 RBI, a .644 slugging percentage and a .432 on-base percentage. "Stacy has worked hard on her fielding skills in the off-season and will hopefully be a strong part of our middle infield, "said Sortino. "She is going to generate more power at the plate and give us some better at bats. I am projecting her to be somewhere near the top of the order.
The incumbent at second base is senior Kristi Stefanoni. Stefanoni has been one of UMass' best defensive players for her entire career and is deadly on the base paths.
"Kristi is probably at the top of her game both offensively and defensively," said Sortino. "I think she is putting things together at the plate and will be able to generate more power this year. We look for Kristi to get a higher on-base percentage so that she can use her base-stealing ability. I think she had a great year last season and will only continue to get better."
Freshman Samantha Salato will also vie for significant playing time in the middle infield. Salato is a very dangerous hitter who set Toms River North High School (N.J.) records in hits, home runs and doubles.
"Samantha has great instincts both at the plate and in the field," said Sortino. "She is going to be a real force to be reckoned with at the plate throughout her career. I think that she is going to make a real impact as a freshman and get better each week."
Freshman Carly Morin will also be in the mix in the middle infield. Carly is the younger sister of Amanda Morin and helped lead her Worcester Academy team to an undefeated season last year as a senior.
"Carly brings a great deal of versatility to the team," said Sortino. "I think as time goes on she will only continue to get better. We need Carly to get on base so that we can take advantage of her speed to steal bases." Third base looks to be wide open with the graduation of Pam Sulick. Carly Morin, Wehr and freshman Whitney Mollica will be competing for that spot. Mollica played the majority of time at the hot corner in fall ball, but Sortino says that the spot is wide open.
Mollica led her Salem High School (N.H.) team to an 81-9 record during her four years and also set the school record for hits. She batted nearly .500 for her career while being named the New Hampshire Gatorade Player of the Year.
"Whitney is going to be an outstanding hitter for us," said Sortino. "She generates tremendous power and is unflappable in the field. She has no fear at the corner and does whatever it takes to get the job done. I am looking forward to her being a major contributor this year."
UMass also has the benefit of a lot of depth in the outfield and some key returnees. Junior speedster Candace Molinari will again likely patrol centerfield. Molinari was a perfect 31-for-31 in stolen base opportunities last year and is moving quickly up the all-time charts at UMass. Last season, she batted .290 and scored 36 runs last season while only committing two errors in the field as she started in all but one game despite battling injuries.
"We all know about Candace's speed, but she is generating more and more power each day," said Sortino. "She has really figured out how to be a prolific base stealer and has come a long way in terms of coordinating the outfield."
Senior Lesley Ferrara and sophomore Lauren Proctor will both see significant time in the outfield. Ferrara had four doubles and a home run last season, but has really worked hard in the off-season according to Sortino.
"Lesley is by far one of our most improved players," said Sortino. "Both her hitting and fielding have come a long way and it is showing in practice. She is in incredible shape and we are looking for her to be a major contributor in the outfield this season."
Proctor batted .322 in a very solid freshman campaign. She was one of the Minutewomen's quiet power hitters with 10 doubles, a triple, three home runs and a .466 slugging percentage. Proctor also stole seven bases. "As a sophomore, Lauren has a much better sense of what she needs to do," said Sortino. "She is a great hitter for us from the opposite side and going to be much improved defensively."
Also competing for time in the outfield will be junior Michea Holness and freshman Davina Hernandez. Holness has been primarily a pinch runner in her first two seasons at UMass. Last year, she appeared in 21 games and scored eight runs.
"Michea has worked hard on her offensive game and I really think she can be a key contributor for us, said Sortino. "We need her to get on base so she can use her base-stealing ability and help us score runs."
Hernandez was a career .352 hitter at Bristol Center High School (Conn.). Her team won two conference championships and she was her school's Female Athlete of the Year as a senior.
"Davina gets better and better every day," said Sortino. "She has an incredible work ethic and plays with her heart on her sleeve day in and day out. Davina has great speed and athleticism and will really add to out depth while vying for significant playing time."
UMass again will not back down from anyone. Sortino knows that for this team to be successful they will need to go out and play the nation's best teams in the first month and a half of the season. They have certainly done that, as the Minutewomen will challenge several top 25 teams this year in various tournaments all over the country. With the addition of two teams (Saint Louis and Charlotte) to the A-10 and just four teams making the postseason tournament, the league will be as competitive as ever this year.
"Our players have already set their goals and know what they want to do," said Sortino. "We are working to make improvements in every category. Working hard is one thing, but working smart is another. This is a very dedicated group and they really want to achieve some special things. This team is one of the most athletic teams that I have ever had. I support their goals to be hanging around at the end of the year with something to do and that is what we plan on doing."