Softball Preview: Improved Pitching Has UCCS Looking Like Contenders
The 2010 season was very, very long for UCCS softball coach Scott Peterson.
Off years by key returners hurt the team's offense. Among the starters who came back from 2009, only Amanda Hathaway, who improved from .208 to .263, posted an increase. Others dropped by 37, 67, 94 and 133 points. A tremendous freshman season by Lara Mathewson and solid first campaigns by others weren't enough to prevent UCCS from posting its fewest runs (4.8 per game) since 2003 and its lowest batting average (.275) since 2002.
And that was the good part.
Mountain Lion pitchers allowed 2.47 baserunners per inning, a .373 batting average against and a 7.37 ERA. Each of those marks were the highest in school history by a significant margin. Other off-the-chart stats included a .468 on base percentage and .637 slugging percentage.
Those numbers make last year's 16-32 record an impressive accomplishment. That said, Peterson has no intention of enduring a fourth straight losing season.
"It was obvious that we needed to get better in pitching," said Peterson. "We had to do something different. We think, with the kids that we brought in, that it will be a world of difference."
That difference begins, ironically, with the lone pitching returner, Jenna Mott. The sophomore-to-be suffered though growing pains in her freshman season but closed strong. Over her final eight games, she went 4-3 with a 3.27 ERA.
"We saw towards the end of the year that Jenna was starting to figure out what was going on," said Peterson. "She understands the league. She's an off-speed pitcher that keeps that ball down and has great location."
Mott's baffling change-up should provide an effective counter to the raw power of Jessica Belsterling and the savvy of Becca Smith, both newcomers.
The 6-foot-1 Belsterling is an intimidating presence whose velocity is reminiscent of former UCCS great Amanda Ritchie. A freshman, Belsterling was named second-team All-Class 5A in Arizona, a state that annually produces many Division I prospects. As a senior at Ironwood High School in Glendale, Belsterling posted a 0.75 ERA with 266 strikeouts in 185 innings.
It's rare to be able to bring in an All-American but that's exactly what Peterson did when he added Smith to the roster. At NAIA Mount Mercy College this past season, Smith went 27-5 with a 1.34 ERA and 221 strikeouts in 208.2 innings. Her performance earned her All-American honorable mention recognition. Smith is an intelligent pitcher who will keep hitters guessing while providing an outstanding example for both Mott and Belsterling.
While both Smith and Belsterling can swing a mean bat, it's Belsterling that will provide the biggest lift offensively. Some highly-regarded Division I programs coveted her as an offensive player after she put up a .494 batting average with a .759 slugging percentage and 31 RBIs in her final year of high school.
"The other thing Jess gives us is that she's going to put up some ridiculous numbers offensively," said Peterson. "That kid can hit."
There's good reason to believe that the Mountain Lions are in for an offensive resurgence. Aside from the arrival of Belsterling and Smith, last year's impressive freshman class has had a year to mature. It is common for hitters to make significant improvement from the first to their second years at the collegiate level.
Foremost among those is Mathewson, who led the team with a .377 batting average in her debut. She was also third in RBIs with 36 despite batting out of the No. 2 spot. This year she will move to the three hole, which should increase her RBI opportunities. Mathewson is also a very good defensive second baseman which will be important since it will be difficult for right-handed hitters to turn on Belsterling's and Smith's fastballs.
Kailey Hernandez, who should start in right field, has a unique skill set. She's a speedy slap hitter who also has the ability to turn on the ball and drive it into the gaps. That makes it dangerous for opposing defenses to go into any kind of slap-hitter shift. The sophomore from Commerce City is a good candidate to bat leadoff and improve considerably from the .247 average she posted in 2010.
Another sophomore, Landry Davis, is a good bet to bat second. She posted a solid .383 on base percentage a year ago and her ability to work deep into the count will provide plenty of base-stealing opportunities for whomever bats ahead of her. Davis was the team's designated hitter a year ago but, with Belsterling or Smith (whichever isn't pitching) likely to occupy that spot, it's important for Davis to improve as a left fielder to keep her bat in the game.
Three sophomores will handle the catching duties. Erin Milburn was the best defensively a year ago and, after struggling at the plate early, she hit .345 over the team's final 13 games. Caitlin Connelly and Tahnea Leeling are rising young hitters. Their ability to fill in at multiple positions will be important.
Melissa DeWitt, yet another sophomore, will move in at first base for graduated All-American Jessika Anastos. An outstanding defender, DeWitt hit .245 with a .351 on base percentage in limited action a year ago.
Marissa Wallace, a transfer from Yavapai Junior College, will play shortstop and could bat anywhere in the lineup. A speedy slap hitter at Yavapai, Wallace has shown the ability to square up balls with power as well. Her defense will keep her on the field regardless of offensive production, but she could be an impact two-way player.
Christina Blanton will play third base and bat in the middle of the order. She hit .286 with 12 home runs and a team-high 41 RBIs a year ago and has the ability to improve upon all of those numbers since she should be followed by more feared hitters that a year ago.
Center field will be occupied by team leader Hathaway, who set a school record with 21 outfield assists a year ago. That mark may well be a record at the RMAC or even NCAA levels, but since that stat isn't officially tracked, there's no way to verify either. A streaky hitter, Hathaway can carry a team when she's on. Peterson is hoping his lone senior can be on far more often than off in her final season.
"She is, without question, the most athletic kid on our team," said Peterson. "It's a shame that what she did last year wasn't recognized by our league. I told the coaches that most of their entire outfields haven't had 21 assists over the past three years."
There are two freshmen other than Belsterling on the roster. One, Jen Schellenberg, injured her knee in the fall and will miss the season. The other, Sara Lafrinere, hit .561 with a .732 slugging percentage as a senior at Evergreen High School. With Mathewson and Wallace manning the middle infield, Lafrinere needs to become a versatile defender to increase her playing time.
RMAC coaches obviously believe that the Mountain Lions will be much improved. UCCS was picked to finish fourth in the East Division and eighth overall in the annual RMAC preseason coaches' poll. Mathewson was named to the preseason all-RMAC team.
Mesa State was picked to finish first, followed by defending champion Metro State. Regis, Colorado School of Mines, Colorado State-Pueblo, Adams State and Western New Mexico were tabbed third through seventh respectively.
For his part, however, Peterson gives no credence to preseason polls.
"Preseason rankings aren't even an educated guess," he said. "There are over 100 new kids in the league. How can you judge what anybody's got when there are than many new players? Every team has new kids, every team is different. There are four new coaches in the league."
One team he can judge, however, it his own.
"We feel very, very positive about where we are right now," said Peterson. "Pitching is a huge part of the game and we feel we've made a big upgrade there. We're very athletic and we think we're going to be pretty good."
UCCS Players/Staff Featured
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