Provo • It didn’t take long for BYU’s highly successful softball program to find out what life would be like without star pitcher McKenna Bull.
The Cougars opened the season ranked No. 19 and No. 22 in the two major preseason polls, but went 1-4 at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Ariz., last weekend, defeating Stanford 10-1 in six innings before losing to Western Michigan (2-1), Nebraska (5-4 in eight innings), No. 25 Georgia (13-1) and Oregon State (14-9).
It was the first of seven tournaments the Cougars will compete in this month and next before attempting to defend their West Coast Conference title in April. They will attempt to reverse their shaky start at the Marucci Desert Invitational in Las Vegas this week against Hawaii, Florida International, New Mexico, Long Beach State and Iowa State.
Bull graduated last season as the most-accomplished pitcher in BYU history and accepted a position on the Utah Valley University coaching staff, but left that program in January after working with the UVU pitchers last fall. The Cougars could use her, it appears.
BYU will do well to replicate last year’s 46-13 season, the best in terms of total victories in coach Gordon Eakin’s 16 seasons, but he isn’t calling this a rebuilding year. You don’t do that when you’ve won nine straight conference championships across four different conferences and made 13 straight NCAA Regional appearances.
“We can overcome injury or slumps because we have tremendous depth and talent,” Eakin said in a school news release. “We have complete confidence in the depth and ability of our entire team.”
Pitching, however, is a concern, as the first tournament showed.
Bull, an NFCA All-American and the three-time WCC Pitcher of the Year, will be replaced by committee; Arissa Paulson, Arianna Paulson, Olivia Sanchez and Kerisa Viramontes saw action last year and are joined by freshman Autumn Moffat, who starred at Eagle High School in Idaho.
“We’re very confident in our upcoming season and we’ll work hard to maintain a good status moving forward,” associate head coach and pitching coach Pete Meredith said.
The Cougars led Nebraska 3-1 in the fifth inning but blew that lead against the expected Big Ten contender. They hit five home runs against Oregon State, but gave up 14 runs to the Beavers.
Junior catcher Libby Sugg is expected to be the team’s offensive star. Named to the 2018 USA Softball Player of the Year watch list, Sugg went 5 for 5 in the losses to Nebraska and Georgia the second day of the tournament.
From Franklin, Tenn., Sugg hit .356 last season with 13 home runs and 56 RBIs.
For the first time in years, BYU will have team captains in 2018. Seniors Caitlyn Alldredge, Briielle Breland and Alexa Strid will join Sugg in the leadership positions. Alldredge was the 2017 WCC Player of the Year, while Strid and Breland were All-WCC first- and second-team selections.
Eakin said captains were selected this season in hopes of forming a more player-driven team that competes more freely and decisively.
“Our team meshes really well and we all love to play and have fun,” Alldredge said.
BYU SOFTBALL PREVIEW
Key losses • Pitcher McKenna Bull, infielder Ashley Thompson, infielder Lauren Bell.
Key returners • Catcher Libby Sugg, infielders Caitlyn Alldredge, AlexaStrid, Briielle Breland and outfielders Rylee Jensen, Brooke VanderHeide.
Notable • BYU has won nine straight conference championships across four different conferences and made 13 straight NCAA Regional appearances