Utah softball: Utes ready for a breakout season
Like all the other teams at the University of Utah, Amy Hogue's softball team has gone through an adjustment period in the Pac-12.
But now Hogue believes her team is ready for a breakout season in the Pac-12, literally and figuratively.
Behind a strong offense and led by veteran pitchers, the Utes hope they can improve upon their efforts in 2013, when they went 7-17 in league play and 24-30-1 overall.
The Utes generated 36 hits in their opening weekend un which they went 2-3. The offensive production was a good omen in the eyes of Hogue.
Utah knew it would have some work to do since it has several new faces in its infield, but at least the offense is sound.
"They can hit," she said. "We just need to improve our defense. We are young, but I see a lot of potential and feel confident they can surpass last year's team."
Now in their third season of Pac-12 play, the biggest lesson the Utes learned last year is if they get some momentum in a game, they need to keep it going.
The Utes showed signs of doing that, going 2-1 against Arizona State and UCLA, but the Utes need to do it on a more consistent basis, Hogue said.
"You can lose it in the blink of an eye," she said. "A lot of times we were in the right spots and had the right pitch and the ball still found the gap or dropped in, and when that happened to us, it was like 'Oh crud,' and we didn't recover all the time. When it happened for us, we didn't think it was a positive or a big deal. But we started to learn to turn it on and run with it."
Hogue, in her seventh season as the Utes' coach, said she warned her team of as much in the past, but it wasn't until they took some hard knocks in the Pac-12 that they have learned.
"We've had some losses, so it might not look like it, but we've improved," she said. "I've had a lot of coaches say we look like a completely different team than two years ago. Sometimes I don't see the baby steps all the time because you focus on wins and losses, but they are there."
Hogue believes Utah's new facility is helping the Utes take those steps in two ways. The exposure and alliance with the Pac-12 has opened recruiting doors and has given the Utes a real sense of pride.
"In the past, it was disheartening because you would want to talk to a coach about a player and they'd say, 'No, how about this kid,' " Hogue said. "Now I'm getting calls from coaches who want me to talk to their best kids."
As a result, freshmen such as Hanna Flippen and Bridget Castro should make an impact in the infield, while freshman pitcher Sammy Cordova will also get plenty of playing opportunities.
The Utes also have six returning starters, including pitchers Kayce Nieto and Mariah Ramirez, along with center fielder Chalese Hadley, who tied for the Pac-12 lead with six triples last year, and right fielder Marissa Mendenhall, who tied for fourth in the Pac-12 with 13 doubles.
Hogue believes all that firepower bodes well for the Utes, particularly once they get their defensive mistakes cleaned up.
"You can't be weak in one area and expect to win games; we knew that even before the Pac-12," she said. "You have to have a good team across the board, and I think we have that."
Utah softball at a glance
2013 record • 24-30-1; 7-17 Pac-12 (9th place)
Starters returning • 6
Starters lost • 3
Newcomers • 6
Strengths • The Utes have a solid offense led by center fielder Chalese Hadley and right fielder Marissa Mendenhall as well as veteran pitching in Kayce Nieto and Mariah Ramirez.
Weaknesses • The Utes are breaking in virtually a whole new infield with sophomore Kristen Stewart the only returner with significant playing time.
Of note • The Utes had 42 double plays last year, which led the Pac-12 and was the second-highest in the NCAA. It was one short of the record 43 the school set in 1989.