The Utah Valley University softball team competes in its third consecutive, season-opening non-conference tournament this week when it travels to the Louisville Slugger Invitational in Long Beach, Calif. While there, the Wolverines will go toe-to-toe with an impressive field with games against UC Santa Barbara, host Long Beach State, Illinois of the Big Ten, Pac-12 Oregon State and fifth-ranked Michigan.
UVU (0-10) begins play with a doubleheader on Thursday against the Big West Conference, facing UCSB at 3 p.m. MT and LBSU at 8. Friday's slate features just one game — against the Fighting Illini at 3 p.m. — and the week comes to a close with another double dip on Friday versus the Beavers and No. 5 Wolverines.
"We have a handful of tough opponents facing us this week, but we feel prepared," Utah Valley head coach Nikki Palmer said. "We've worked really hard these past two weeks and we are hoping that this will be the weekend that things click for us. We're getting back to being able to play loose and trust our abilities and we know that everyone has to do their part in order for us to be successful."
The Wolverines will be hitting the field for the first time in a little under two weeks after remaining idle last week. Still seeking its first win, UVU has gotten some nice performances from its freshmen as newcomers Brianna Gatlin, Hailey Kofler and Brittney Vansway lead the squad with two RBIs apiece. Sophomore utility Dynasty Lauvai leads the team with a batting average of .286.
Four different Wolverine pitchers have gotten starting nods in the early season, led by six starts from junior Josi Summers.
The Gauchos of UCSB come into the week with an overall record of 9-4, including a 4-1 mark at last week's Unconquered Classic in Tallahassee, Fla. Host and 10th-ranked Florida State provided the only slip-up for the Gauchos on the week in a 5-2 decision. UCSB went 31-24 last season, finishing fourth in the Big West.
Sophomore outfielder Arianna Palomares leads UC Santa Barbara with a .477 batting average this season. Senior infielder Lauren Boser and junior pitcher Shelby Wisdom are tied with a team-high nine RBIs. Wisdom has eight starts in the circle this season and holds a 2.39 ERA.
The host 49ers are 9-6 this season with one win already coming against UVU. Facing off at the Easton Desert Classic, LBSU topped the Wolverines, 8-1. Utah Valley will be looking to avenge that loss against a 49er club coming off two consecutive wins over New Mexico and Syracuse.
Junior infielder Ashley Holmes leads the LBSU offense with a .452 average, 20 RBIs and six home runs. She went 1-for-3 with a three-run homer in the previous meeting with UVU.
The Wolverines' lone opponent on Thursday, Illinois, comes in with an 11-3 mark on the young season. The lone losses on the Illini schedule come from South Florida, Texas-Tech and then top-ranked Tennessee.
Senior Alex Booker is the reigning Big Ten Player of the Week after becoming the first-ever Illinois player to hit for the cycle after doing so in the Illini's 9-1 win over Creighton. She will lead Illinois into its first-ever meeting with UVU behind a .388 batting average and team-best 15 RBIs. Pitcher Brandi Needham is 6-1 with a stellar 1.14 ERA.
Oregon State, an NCAA qualifier out of the Pac-12 Conference a year ago, arrives in Long Beach with a 5-11 record. Yet to play a home game this season, the Beavers most recently finished a trip to the Mary Nutter Classic in Cathedral City, Calif., with a 2-3 record. OSU picked up wins over Virginia and Pacific but fell to Boise State, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
Junior Dani Gilmore and freshman Alexis Gonzalez lead the Beavers with 12 RBIs apiece, while sophomore Kori Nishitomi holds the top batting average at .391. Amanda Najdek, a senior, has seen the bulk of the starts in the circle for OSU, holding a 3-6 record and a 4.26 ERA.
No. 5 Michigan represents the highest opponent ever faced by the Utah Valley softball program and will create just the second-ever meeting between the two sets of Wolverines in all sports. Michigan volleyball, ranked 24th at the time, topped UVU, 3-0, back in 2011.
UM is 12-2 this season and went a perfect 5-0 in last week's FAU Kickoff Classic in Boca Raton, Fla. True freshman Megan Betsa threw two shutouts at the Classic, earning her the Big Ten's Pitcher of the Week award. She is 5-0 with a 0.86 ERA on the season.
As a team, the Wolverines are batting .338 and are led by a .513 batting average from Sierra Romero. Romero has a team-high three home runs and is tied with teammate Sierra Lawrence for the team lead in RBIs with 19.
Utah Valley returns to Utah next week for a doubleheader in Salt Lake City at the University of Utah. The Wolverines and Utes meet on Tuesday, March 4, with the doubleheader getting underway at 3 p.m. MT.
Kellen Hiser is an assistant sports information director at Utah Valley University. For more information on Wolverine athletics, visit WolverineGreen.com.