Utah softball: Stocked with returning talent, Utes remain ambitious

Utah softball • Team comes off first NCAA berth since 2006.

Courtesy | Utah Athletics Utah freshman Katie Donovan, who has helped lead the Utes to a 12-4 start, pitches last fall.

On Utah softball's 2016 schedule, the initials "TBA" are listed by a number of dates in May and June: NCAA Regionals. NCAA Super Regionals. The Women's College World Series.

Lofty goals? Yes. But the biggest change for the program in nine seasons under coach Amy Hogue is the players expect to be inching toward those destinations. Picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12 would've been a good aim for the Utes a few seasons ago. This season, it would be a disappointment.

"The talent we have in this program keeps getting better and better," said Hogue, with her program coming off its best year since she took over. "It's not easy because we've set some really high standards. But it's similar work, just a higher level."

They went to NCAA Regionals for the first time since 2006, finishing 36-19 and seeing their season end in Knoxville, Tenn., two wins from advancing past the regional round for the first time since 1994.

Junior second baseman Hannah Flippen, a returning second-team all-Pac-12 honoree, said the experience was a bit of a system shock. She played in front of the most fans she ever had before. It helped the Utes realize the magnitude of how far they were getting.

They want to be back there again. On a team retreat last month, the team discussed their goals and wrote them on posters now stationed in their locker room and the field house where they practice in winter: The team expects to finish among the top 3 in the Pac-12, and earn a berth to Super Regionals.

"We always just remind each other every day that every practice is for something bigger," Flippen said. "It's for that last win of the season. Not just for the moment."

To that end, Utah returns a good deal of its infield and pitching talent, including sophomore hurlers Katie Donovan (a Pac-12 first team honoree as a freshman) and Miranda Viramontes, who both sported top-five ERAs in the conference last season. Along with Sammy Cordova and Kayce Nieto, there's plenty of experience in the circle. Hogue said the emphasis for all of Utah's pitchers has been developing more pitches and becoming multi-dimensional, adding extra weapons for the team that was the Pac-12's second-best staff in ERA (2.79).

Utah returns Flippen, third baseman Kristen Stewart, shortstop Anissa Urtez, first baseman Bridget Castro and catcher Shelby Pacheco. It will be the third season together for an infield that led the league in fielding percentage last year (.977). The outfield is a question mark after losing all-Pac-12 performer Kate Dickman, but newcomers (including Dickman's younger sister Ally) should help fill the gaps. Dickman and incoming transfer Delilah Pacheco will give the Utes some much-needed left-handed bats.

Hogue said the team's on-base percentage (.356) and accumulating more strikeouts (221) than walks (152) left something to be desired. Utah's hitters have practiced standing in the box and being more disciplined about taking pitches — and hopefully accumulating more walks.

Off the bat, Utah begins the season in Tempe, Ariz., against No. 25 Notre Dame. They're aiming to go where none of the players have gone before by season's end. Stewart, who has seen Utah's progression in her career, has faith they can get there.

"The culture has changed," Stewart said. "We're a legit family now, and we have this huge stadium. It's really humbling to know how far we've come."


Twitter: @kylegoon

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune University of Utah softball coach Amy Hogue talks about her team's seeding in the NCAA Softball tournament, Sunday May 10, 2015.