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Juan Flores Mena, UVU Athletics
The Utah Valley softball team huddles at home plate during a fall exhibition game at Wolverine Field in October 2016. The Wolverines officially open their 2017 season on Friday at the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic in Cathedral City, California.

With 12 new players and a new head coach in first-year head man TJ Hubbard, the new-look Utah Valley University softball team opens its 2017 season this weekend at the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic in Cathedral City, California. The Wolverines will face five California schools in three days at the tournament, as they take on Saint Mary's and San Diego on Friday, Cal Poly and Loyola Marymount on Saturday and UC Davis on Sunday.

Friday's opening day contests begin at 10 a.m. PT versus Saint Mary's and 12:30 p.m. against San Diego, while Saturday's games versus Cal Poly and LMU start at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., respectively, and Sunday's finale against UC Davis begins at 10 a.m. The tournament will be held at the Big League Dreams Sports Park in Cathedral City, and live video will be streamed online for all five games for a fee by visiting FloSoftball.

"Any time you're getting ready to start a new season it's exciting. This group in particular has put in a lot of time and effort and we're all kind of chomping at the bit to get outside and play some outside competition," Hubbard said. "I think it's an exciting time, especially for this group of kids and how hard they have been working."

UVU welcomes back just four returning starters and eight returning letterwinners from last year's squad that went 9-43 overall and tied for fifth in the Western Athletic Conference with a 3-12 mark. Of the returning starters are Preseason All-WAC selections and seniors Brittney Vansway (third base) and Bailey Moore (pitcher) that will look to help lead the way for the youthful Wolverines.

"Hopefully I can help the freshmen and newcomers figure out life on the road and kind of be an example and a mentor to them," said Moore. "I'm also hoping to be a leader on the field and fulfill my role for my team as well."

Of the 12 newcomers this season, half of them are transfers, as senior outfielder Courtney Beavers (Murray, Utah/UNLV), junior middle infielder Kirsten Andersen (St. George, Utah/Salt Lake CC), junior utility Kawehi Kahana (Ewa Beach, Hawaii/Central Arizona College), junior pitcher Lauren Frailey (Tooele, Utah/Salt Lake CC), sophomore outfielder Abbie Tuttle (Payson, Utah/Dawson CC) and freshman pitcher Lexi Sorensen (Valencia, California/Loyola Marymount) look to contribute on the diamond this year for the Wolverines. Freshmen Taylor Miller (Spanish Fork, Utah/Spanish Fork HS), Caragh Morris (Ewa Beach, Hawaii/James Campbell HS), Angelica Ponce (Bellflower, California/St. Anthony HS), Basia Query (Henderson, Nevada/Coronado HS), Kenzi Summers (Tremonton, Utah/Bear River HS) and Lyndsay Steverson (Mesa, Arizona/Red Mountain HS) will as well.

"For as many new people that we have, we have bonded well together. We're just a big group of 20 sisters and we all get along and care about each other," said Moore. "We're just a big family and we're looking forward to getting the season underway."

The newcomers join in with returners Moore, Vansway, Hailey Kofler, Makayla Shadle, Kristy Snyder, Cera Stanley, Eryn Sustayta and Taleigh Williams. Of the group, Vansway is a three-time all-conference performer that hit a team-best .340 a year ago with nine home runs, 16 doubles, 41 RBIs and a .605 slugging percentage. Moore, who has been Utah Valley's workhorse in the circle the last couple of years, logged a total of 131.1 innings in 2016, which included three complete games and a save. She also became UVU's all-time record holder in total appearances (127), games finished (37) and most groundouts (817) as a junior, and she is closing in on a number of other school records this year.

"We have a talented group of girls that are all willing to work hard," junior pitcher Shadle said. "We've changed our focus to more of working on the process of getting better and we're excited to get the season started."

About the opposition

The Saint Mary's Gaels are off to a 2-4 start on the season after pulling out wins over UTEP and UT Arlington at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Arizona, last week. SMC was picked to finish fourth in the West Coast Conference this year after going 20-27-1 overall and 7-8 in WCC action in 2016. Friday's opener will mark the 16th all-time meeting between the Wolverines and Gaels. UVU enters the contest holding a slight 7-6 lead after splitting a four-game series between the two teams in 2013 in Moraga.

San Diego is 2-3 on the young season after picking up wins over Stanford and WAC foe Seattle U at the Kajikawa Classic last week. USD is also a member of the West Coast Conference and was picked to finish third in the league this year after going 22-29 overall and 8-7 in WCC play last season. Friday's ballgame will mark the eighth all-time meeting between the Wolverines and Toreros. USD holds a 4-3 series lead after picking up a 6-1 win over UVU at the San Diego Classic in 2015.

Cal Poly is off to a 4-1 start on the season behind a pair of no-hitters from the reigning national player of the week in Sierra Hyland at the Kajikawa Classic a week ago. The Mustangs hold wins over Purdue, San Diego, Creighton and Western Michigan and went 27-23 overall and 10-11 in Big West play in 2016 and were picked to finish fourth in the league this season. Saturday's contest will mark the first all-time meeting between Utah Valley and Cal Poly.

LMU is 2-3 on the year after earning wins over North Dakota State and Utah State at the Cal State Fullerton's Easton Invitational last weekend. The Lions were picked to finish second in the West Coast Conference this year after going 32-21 overall a season ago and 10-5 in WCC play. Saturday's nightcap against the Lions will mark the 16th all-time meeting between UVU and LMU. The Lions enter the ballgame holding to an 11-4 series lead after winning three out of four games over Utah Valley in Los Angeles in 2013.

UC Davis is 2-0 on the young season but will host Stanford on Wednesday afternoon before heading to the Mary Nutter Classic this weekend. The Aggies hold their two wins over Santa Clara and were picked to finish eighth in the Big West in 2017 after going 15-35 overall and 4-17 in league play last season. Sunday's finale will mark just the third all-time meeting between UVU and UCD. The Aggies hold a 2-0 series lead after winning a pair of games over Utah Valley in 2011.

Last year at the Mary Nutter Classic

Utah Valley went 3-2 a year ago at its inaugural appearance at the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic. The Wolverines picked up wins over George Washington (11-1), Bethune-Cookman (11-3) and Binghamton (5-4), while suffering setbacks to Notre Dame (4-11) and Army (6-10). This season will mark just UVU's second appearance at the tournament.

Up next for UVU

Following the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic, the Wolverines next head to the Red Desert Classic on March 3-5, in St. George, Utah. That weekend, UVU will face UC Santa Barbara, Utah State, UNLV, Montana and Iowa State. Utah Valley will then head to the Nevada Wolf Pack Classic on March 10-11, in Reno, Nevada, before welcoming the Maine Black Bears to town for its 2017 home opener on March 14.

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"There are challenges in every schedule that you put together. In our situation with the group of newcomers that we have, and the limited action that they've seen at the college level, I think it puts them in a situation that they will be challenged," said Hubbard. "I think the schedule is challenging enough that it is going to give our newcomers opportunities to learn and grow and be in a situation to be better every day."

James Warnick is an assistant sports information director at Utah Valley University. For more information about Wolverine athletics, visit WolverineGreen.com.