Sure, Utah softball coach Amy Hogue realizes her team graduated a lot of talent, but she’s also highly optimistic about this season because she can take solace in having veteran pitching. After all once upon a time, she was a wide-eyed freshman on a team that went to College World Series led by senior pitchers.
The Utes lost seven seniors and five starters from last year’s team, including Pac-12 Conference Player of the Year and All-American Hannah Flippen. They finished last year with the highest national ranking in program history (No. 14) after a one-run loss against Washington in a game to decide who’d go to the Women’s College World Series.
When the Utes open their season on Friday morning in the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Ariz., they’ll have a very different look than the team that made that postseason run, but their sights will be set on similar approach as last year and every other for at least the past decade.
“As far as what our goals, they’re always the same,” Hogue said. “That is to do better than we did the year before, and we’ve done that for 10 straight years. I get it. The ceiling is pretty high, and I’ve got some freshmen, but I have a pitching staff and some sophomores that did great things for us last year a freshmen. There’s no reason to believe we can’t one-up last year’s outing.”
Utes senior pitchers Miranda Viramontes and Katie Donovan combined to start 50 of the team’s 53 games last season. The pitcher who started those other three games, junior Hailey Hilburn, also returns. Hilburn will start more games this season and also play right field and bat in the middle of the lineup.
Viramontes, a first-team all-conference selection last season, went 14-4 and posted a 1.51 ERA with 74 strikeouts and 19 walks in 115 2/3 innings. Donovan (18-10) served as the workhorse of the staff with 155 1/3 innings, and she struck out 132 with 72 walks. Twenty-two of Hilbrun’s appearances came in relief. Redshirt freshman pitcher Claire Feldman will work primarily in relief, similar to Hilbrun had in past.
“That’s the most exciting thing for me – even if we aren’t quite sure what we’ve got, defensively, and different names and faces in the bottom part of our offensive lineup, it’s comforting that we’ve got veteran pitching that I feel like is going to give us a chance to win every ballgame that we’re in,” Hogue said.
The Utes will shift some returning players and plug in new faces defensively. Breonna Castaneda, a sophomore, moves to Flippen’s old spot at second base and she’ll bat leadoff.
Julia Noskin slots into starting left field spot as a freshman. Two freshmen, Chandler Walter and Abby Robertson, will share time at shortstop to start the season. Freshman Alyssa Palacios and Walter could also share time at first base. Juniors Ally Dickman and Hilburn will share duties in right field.
“Our goal is definitely still the same,” Viramontes said. “Our goal is to get to Oklahoma City in the end. Our new girls, they all hopped on that bus really quick and understood just because we’re all new we’re going to say we hope we make it to supers again. We still have the same goal even though we have a bunch of new young people.”
Outfielder Alyssa Barrera will be an anchor of both the outfield and the lineup for the Utes after she started every game as a freshman. The top returning hitter from last season, Barrera batted .381 with 23 RBIs, a .464 slugging percentage, .459 on-base percentage and six stolen bases.
A second-team all-conference selection in her first season, she was one of nine sophomores and 50 players in the country named to USA Softball’s Collegiate Player of the Year Watch List going into this season.
“I’m constantly thinking what I’m going to get this year,” Barrera said. “What I’m expecting to be thrown [at me], the type of situations, what I’m going to be expected to do as a leader. I do feel a little more comfortable, and I feel like I can use that to my advantage. I’ve been here before, I have to remind myself. I’ve been through it before. I can do it again.”
Utah at Kajikawa Classic
Friday, 9:15 a.m.: vs. New Mexico
Friday, 11:30 a.m.: vs. No. 25 Georgia
Saturday, 9 a.m.: vs. Nebraska
Saturday, 2 p.m.: vs. No. 11 Tennessee
Sunday, 2 p.m.: vs. Saint Mary’s