Feb. 12, 2014
WEST POINT, N.Y. -
Army's softball team gets a jump on the weather this weekend as it leaves the cold and snow of the Hudson Valley behind to head to Texas for a five-game challenge at the Hilton Houston Plaza Classic, Feb. 14-16, hosted by the University of Houston at Cougar Softball Stadium.
Army faces one of the toughest schedules in the history of the sport under fifth-year head coach Michelle DePolo, who reached the 100-win plateau last year, starting this weekend taking on two postseason teams that competed in the NCAA Regionals last year in Nebraska and host Houston.
The defending Patriot League Tournament champions and NCAA participant Black Knights open competition Friday, Feb. 14, taking on Stephen F. Austin at 11:30 a.m. and Nebraska at 7 p.m. (Central), respectively, it their first-ever meetings.
Army and the Ladyjacks face each other Saturday, Feb. 15, at 9 a.m. followed by Houston at 4:30 p.m. The Black Knights close out the tournament taking on the Cougars for the second time on Sunday, Feb. 16, at 11:30 a.m.
The Black Knights and Houston met last spring at the NCAA Texas Regional where the Cougars had to rally to defeat a pesky Army team, 7-5. The Black Knights earned their third trip to the NCAA Regionals and first since 2002 after capturing the Patriot League Tournament Championship and automatic bid to the NCAAs. The Cougars received an at-large bid last year.
Live stats for the Black Knights' games will be offered via GameTracker on Army's official athletics website with Twitter updates also provided through Army's handle (@Army_WSoftball).
ARMY AT A GLANCE
The Black Knights posted a 35-26 mark in 2013 and return 11 letterwinners from that squad, including a pair of Patriot League first-team selections who rank among Army's top returning batting leaders in senior outfielder Amanda Nguyen and sophomore third baseman Kasey McCravey.
Army lost five starters from the 2013 squad to include three all-league picks and an All-Tournament selection.
The Black Knights will be young and inexperienced to start off the season with the outfield the hardest hit. Army will have to replace two of the positions with Nguyen, who led the Black Knights offensively batting .381, along with a school record 85 hits, 48 runs and 40 stolen bases, the lone returnee.
Though losing pitcher Morgan Lashley, a two-time Patriot League all-league performer, sophomore Braetana Roy will lead a young staff that includes three freshmen. All four pitchers provide a variety of different looks that Army can throw against its opponents.
Junior Alex Gaff and senior co-captain April Ortenzo join McCravey in rounding out Army's returning infielders. Ortenzo heads into her fourth season as the starting shortstop, while Gaff shared first base duties last year with classmate Ali Cleinmark, who is injured but expected to return soon.
McCravey, at third base, shined during the postseason in 2013. At the NCAAs, she went 2-for-4 with two runs scored against Houston and was 2-for-3 against Texas after batting .500 (8-for-16) with three RBI and two runs scored at the Patriot League Tournament Championship.
There will be a battle among the veterans and newcomers to fill second base and catcher, along with two outfield spots and backup duties. Vying for the vacant catcher position will be sophomores Alyssa Strobehn and Paige Vallejos who drew backup duty last year. Also a contender is Bernadette Cardon, who took over as the designated player late last season. Also in the mix to fill a position is junior utility player Jewels Steuer.
The Black Knights ranked among last year's national leaders in fielding percentage (14th -.973) and double plays (19th-26) with Nguyen listed 16th in stolen bases. Army posted a 35-26 mark in 2013 (second straight 30-win season), batted .281, collected 498 hits to include 19 home runs, 61 doubles and four triples, along with 81 stolen bases. In this year's Patriot League preseason poll, Army was picked third.
"We are going to be young all over the field and inexperienced as well," noted DePolo. "We will use our strengths to complement how we play ball. The youth aspect is similar to a preseason vote. It is not where you start, but where your finish."
SCOUTING THE FIELD
STEPHEN F. AUSTIN (0-3) is a member of the All-Southland Conference with shortstop Elizabeth Arana named to the preseason team. A first team All-SLC selection in 2013, she is SFA's top returning player after hitting .399 last season and driving in 25, along with a fielding percentage of .977.
SFA is batting .256 with Brittany Lewis the leader (.556) along with five runs batted in by Shalie Day. Hannah Welch (3.60 ERA) and Carlie Thomas (4.00 ERA) have drawn the majority of duty in the circle. SFA posted a 16-32 mark last year.
NEBRASKA (3-1), a member of the Big Ten, reached the Women's College World Series last season going undefeated in its own Regional before upsetting No. 3-seed Oregon in the Super Regionals to advance to the WCWS. The Huskers finished the year 45-16, going 0-2 at the WCWS ending the season with a No. 8 ranking following its seventh trip to the WCWS.
The Huskers return their entire pitching staff from last year, to include four returning all-conference picks, along with a pair of All-Americans in senior twins Tatum and Taylor Edwards.
Tatum Edwards was among 50 players nationally named to the 2014 USA Softball Collegiate Player-of-the-Year watch list announced by the Amateur Softball Association of America and USA Softball. Tatum Edwards finished with a 30-10 record and a 1.91 ERA in the circle in 2013, when she was named a second-team All-American and the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year.
Eighth-ranked Nebraska (3-1) posted a 7-0 shutout of UTEP, before rallying for a dramatic 4-3 victory over No. 12 Florida State. Nebraska made it three straight wins with an 11-0 run-rule victory against New Mexico State, before falling in a rematch with the Seminoles, 5-1. On the weekend, the Huskers outscored their opponents 23-8 with six of the opponent's eight runs scoring with two outs.
Nebraska batted .306 with 34 hits and 18 RBI. Taylor Edwards is batting .538 with two RBI and four runs scored followed by Hailey Decker's .429 batting with three runs batted in and four scored. In the circle, Tatum Edwards is 2-0 with a 1.75 ERA with Emily Lockman next (2.50 ERA).
HOUSTON (Season opener) was picked third in the 2014 American Athletic Conference Preseason Coaches' Poll. Houston, a member of Conference USA last year, is led by Haley Outon, Conference USA's 2013 Player of the Year. The senior catcher was recently named to the USA Softball Top 50 "Watch List" for the second-straight year.
Outon led the league in home runs (16), RBI (62), slugging percentage (.731) and walks (41) last year, along with being named All-Region. She enters her senior campaign second in the Houston history books with 43 career home runs and fourth in RBI with 144.
Army and Houston met last year at the NCAA Regionals in Austin with the Black Knights overcoming a 3-0 deficit behind a four-run third inning flurry, but the Cougars rallied with four runs on five hits in the fifth. Army's McCravey, who ripped a one-out double and moved to third on a wild pitch, scored a run in the bottom of the fifth to draw Army to within two runs, but Diedre Outon (twin sister of Haley) stranded runners at first and second. Houston then fell 5-1 to South Carolina in finish 41-20.
The Black Knights opened the sixth inning with three straight hits to chase Outon. Bailey Watts took over the circle and retired the side on back-to-back strikeouts and a flyout in getting out of the bases-loaded jam to preserve the win.
Katie St. Pierre, who went 3-for-4 with an RBI and run scored against Army at the Regionals, is among the returning players. She is batting .376 with 67 hits, 47 hits, 17 runs batted in and 47 runs scored Defensively, Diedre Outon compiled a 2.76 ERA posting a 13-8 mark in 24 appearances.
In addition to meeting Houston at last year's Regional, the Black Knights and Cougars opened their series in 2008 at the Crowne Plaza Classic where Army fell twice in five innings, 9-0 and 10-1, when DePolo was an assistant.
Next up for the Black Knights is the Spartan Classic hosted by UNC Greensboro, Feb. 21-23.