The 2014 Utah Valley University softball season officially gets underway Friday when the Wolverines make their debut at the Red Desert Classic at The Canyons Softball Complex in St. George, Utah. UVU will play five games over three days, beginning with a 4 p.m. MT Friday tilt against regional foe Idaho State.
Live stats for all five games over the weekend are available on UVU's website. The weekend schedule also includes a pair of doubleheaders as the Wolverines meet Nebraska-Omaha (1:30 p.m.) and Weber State (4 p.m.) on Saturday, and then UT Arlington (11 a.m.) and Nevada (1:30 p.m.) on Sunday.
"I love the competition that we're going to face at the Red Desert Classic this weekend," first-year UVU head coach Nikki Palmer said. "Our opponents are going to challenge us right away. Idaho State is a great opponent to open up with after having been tabbed the Big Sky Conference preseason favorite. Our girls are just ready to get on the field and start working towards our big goals this season."
Friday's meeting with ISU is the first of three this season between the Wolverines and Bengals. The two programs will meet again in Orem on March 25 before wrapping up the season series on April 15 in Pocatello. UVU split last season's series with the Big Sky Conference foe, avenging an 8-6 loss at Wolverine Field with a 3-0 victory at ISU.
The Bengals went 29-23 last season and claimed the Big Sky title with a 14-4 conference mark, but they missed out on the NCAA Regionals after suffering a loss to Southern Utah in the semifinals of the conference tournament. Ten starters return from that title winning squad, headlined by junior catcher Vicky Galasso. The reigning Big Sky Player of the Year, Galasso, batted .461 with 18 home runs and 60 RBIs in 2013. Teammate Maddy Hickman, a sophomore infielder who batted .353 a season ago, was named Big Sky Freshman of the Year. As a team, the high-powered Bengals offense finished the 2013 season ranked fifth in the nation in slugging percentage (.552), seventh in home runs (1.5 per game) and eighth in batting average (.329).
Meanwhile, Omaha comes into opening weekend off a 36-7 overall record last season and a second-place finish in the Summit League. The Mavericks are former Great West Conference rivals to the Wolverines, that latter of whom hold a 2-1 edge overall in the series.
In-state rival Weber State went 10-38 overall and 5-13 in the Big Sky last season. Palmer was an assistant for the Wildcats last season. UVU and WSU will meet again in late March with a doubleheader in Ogden.
Former members of the WAC, the Mavericks of UT Arlington posted a 25-28 record last season and advanced to the WAC Tournament. This year, the Mavs compete in the Sun Belt Conference, their third league in as many years.
Lastly, Nevada awaits the Wolverines at the Red Desert Classic for the second straight year. The Wolf Pack finished 2013 with a 30-23 record, including an 11-1 loss at the hands of Utah Valley in St. George. Nevada was picked to finish sixth in the Mountain West Conference this year.
About Utah Valley
Utah Valley makes its way into the 2014 on the heels of a record-setting year last season. For the second straight year, the Wolverines set a program mark for wins after going 35-20 in 2013, including victories over eventual WAC champion San Jose State, Oklahoma State of the Big 12, Arkansas of the SEC and crosstown rival BYU. UVU finished third in its final year with the Pacific Coast Softball Conference with a 14-10 record and entered the final weekend with a PCSC title, and its accompanying NCAA bid, still in play.
"The team has very high expectations this season," Palmer said. "They mapped out their goals for the season at our team retreat and one of those goals was to top our wins record for the third straight year. We think we have the talent to accomplish that goal and to give the previous seasons' records a run for their money."
As a result of its on-field success, the Wolverines saw six players named to all-conference teams — a group that was led by unanimous first team selection Amanda Robinson. A senior first baseman, Robinson batted .351 last season and led the team in home runs with seven. She is just three homers and 40 hits shy of claiming the all-time program record in both categories.
Robinson and Summers were named to the Preseason All-WAC team on Jan. 28.
"We have a really strong core of returners and they are a group that have really taken the newcomers under their wing and shown them the ropes," Palmer said. "They know how to win and what it takes to win and they are teaching our younger kids those important lessons.
"I expect our veterans to be key contributors both offensively and defensively."
Still, having brought in eight newcomers with her first recruiting class at Utah Valley, Palmer knows the youth of her team will have to step up as well.
"We could have at least three newcomers on the field to start every game and probably hitting toward the top of the lineup as well," she said. "We'll need them to contribute as well and I know they can. I'm looking forward to seeing how our new girls develop this year."
The club's top returning pitcher after a 13-7 mark and 2.28 ERA last year, Summers heads up a large UVU pitching staff complete with five strong arms. Joining the Temecula, Utah, native are newcomers Kelsey Lawton (Goodyear, Ariz.), Kailey Christensen (Spanish Fork, Utah/SLCC) and Bailey Moore (Ely, Nevada). Senior outfielder Dara Rahm, formerly Dara Kosanke, will also see some time in the circle this season.
"Five pitchers is quite a few for a collegiate softball program," Palmer said of her pitching staff. "But I think all five of them can be huge contributors. They're powerful in the circle and can move the ball around well, so that competition within our own staff should work in favor of the team as a whole this year."
Completing the battery, catchers Kendal Powell and Rachel Schoonmaker join North behind the plate. Powell is a true freshman from Hemet, Calif., while Schoonmaker — a Lone Peak High School product — makes her debut at Utah Valley as a junior by way of Pratt CC.
Around the infield Palmer will rely on her strength at the corners, anchored by first baseman Robinson and third baseman Debra Lovell. The third and final senior on the UVU squad, Lovell, batted .259 last year and drove in 22 runs. She set off one of the Wolverines' highlight moments in 2013 when her walk-off, two-run shot lifted UVU to a 6-4 win over BYU. Courtney Starks, a true freshman out of Syracuse, Utah, could also see some time at first base this season.
Sophomore Morgan Summers, sister of pitcher Josi, is expected to occupy the second base spot where she spent much of last season. Offensively, Summers batted .286 with 20 runs and seven stolen bases a year ago. True freshman Brittney Vansway (Irvine, Calif.) is expected to see opening day at shortstop, while freshman Megan Ventura (Provo, Utah) is also capable of filling a spot in the middle infield.
"Brittney (Vansway) is very athletic and doesn't play like a freshman," Palmer said. "She covers a lot of ground on the defensive side and can be huge on the offensive side. She was very impressive in winning that job over quite a few players that wanted it."
Junior Fox, a .272 hitter in 2013, will patrol center field for Palmer, with other outfield spots potentially being filled by JC transfer Erin Romero (Taylorsville, Utah/Southern Nevada), Josie Flores (Modesto Calif.), Schoonmaker, Rahm and others. Freshmen Hailey Kofler (Temecula, Calif.) and Brianna Gatlin (La Quinta, Calif.), as well as sophomore Dynasty Lauvai, have been labled utility players for this year's Wolverine squad, capable of filling a variety of gaps on the defensive side.
The Red Desert Classic is one of three invitationals in which the Wolverines will compete in the early season. From St. George, UVU heads to Las Vegas for the Easton Desert Classic next week and wraps up the month of February at the Mayfair Invitational in Long Beach, Calif. UVU will face the likes of UNLV and Ohio State in Vegas before going toe-to-toe with Ilinois, Oregon State and No. 5 Michigan.
Kellen Hiser is an assistant sports information director at Utah Valley University. For more information on Wolverine athletics, visit WolverineGreen.com.