OREM — On paper, the Utah Valley University softball team appears a familiar one from a season ago.
That squad finished 2012 with 33 wins — the most in UVU's NCAA Division I era — and grabbed a tie for second place in the Pacific Coast Softball Conference's Mountain Division.
Fourteen letterwinners and six starters return from that team, poised to play a schedule that bears a marked resemblance to last season's slate. But beneath all the outward familiarity lies some subtle newness — a challenge the Wolverines are eager to embrace this season.
The primary discrepancy comes at the head coach spot. Fourteen-year head coach Todd Fairbourne, who brought the institution its only national championship when his 2000 squad captured the NJCAA crown, stepped down following the 2012 season. Taking the reins from the former Mountain Division Coach of the Year is Rachel Hartgrove, a longtime assistant and former shortstop for the Wolverines.
By promoting Hartgrove, the lineup card remains in the hands of someone familiar and intimately connected with the UVU program.
"This is one of the best group of kids I've ever been able to coach," Hartgrove said. "They've all bought into the goals we've established for the program and take a `no fear' attitude out onto the field."
"It's a different atmosphere here than what we had before," said Hartgrove of the shift in coaching staff. "Maybe it's a little more relaxed, and I think that comes with confidence and experience. With so many returners we've had a lot of solid leadership carrying through this transition, particularly from our five seniors.
"That being said, we expect this to be our program's best all-around team."
Headlining the returning members are 2012 First Team All-PCSC performers Tiffany Mills and Jamie North. A senior pitcher from Riverside, Calif., Mills rewrote the single-season record book in 2012, setting program marks in wins (18), ERA (2.57), strikeouts (162), innings pitched (234.1) shutouts (4) and saves (8). Her eight saves were good for third in the country in 2012.
North, a sophomore catcher from Placentia, Calif., garnered First Team accolades after batting .356 in PCSC play. A .300 hitter overall last season, North will likely fit alongside teammates Amanda Robinson and Krystin Jachim in the heart of the order.
"Jamie was a clutch hitter for us last season and into the fall," Hartgrove said. "Whenever we need a big hit, she usually comes up with it. I'm looking forward to seeing her bat and defensive consistency behind the plate continue to develop this season."
Robinson, a junior who will move from outfield to first base this season, belted single-season school record 13 home runs a year ago to go along with a .301 average and team-high 40 RBIs. The only other Wolverine to reach double-digit home runs was Jachim, a senior shortstop from Roy, Utah. Her 11 homers and .309 batting average helped her earn Honorable Mention All-PCSC honors.
Josi Summers, a sophomore from Tremonton, Utah, will bolster the UVU pitching staff as she returns from a redshirt last season. As a true freshman, Summers picked up a then single-season record 14 wins and will look to team up with Mills as the Wolverines' one-two punch from the circle.
Newcomers Debra Lovell (3B), Dara Kosanke (OF) and Dynasty Lauvai (IF) arrive at Utah Valley looking to fill the void left by Deianna Russell and Amanda Perez, seniors in 2012, and Jessica Uresti, who left the team for personal reasons.
A transfer from Midland College in Texas, Lovell was a two-time All-Region and All-Conference player. With a .417 average and 15 home runs as a true freshman, Lovell is expected to add some pop to the Wolverine lineup. Kosanke, another JC transfer, was a two-time NFCA All-American and a two-time Eastern Region MVP at Walla Walla CC, while Lauvai, one of three true freshmen on the squad, was a three-time All-State selection out of Tempe, Ariz.
UVU's experienced roster will be tested through a schedule that features 13 rematches from last season, games against every in-state opponent and a trip into SEC country.
A three-game series against Arkansas in Fayetteville is highlighted in the non-conference schedule, as is a return trip to the Rebel Spring Games in Kissimmee, Fla. The Wolverines were successful at the Games last season, going 7-1-1 in mid-March.
UVU begins its fourth season of PCSC play on March 23, but the Wolverines will see a new side of the conference this season. With all of its Mountain Division rivals finding new conference homes, UVU joins crosstown rival and conference newcomer BYU with the rest of the PCSC Coastal Division to create a single-division league.
With this new landscape, the Wolverines will face the likes of BYU, CSU Bakersfield, Loyola Marymount, Saint Mary's, San Diego and Santa Clara for the first time in conference play.
"Conference play is definitely a little bit of an unknown," Hartgrove said. "We're pretty familiar with BYU and LMU, but we know that the league will be tough. Saint Mary's won the Coastal Division last year and San Diego is returning almost everyone.
"Still, I see us up there in the top three of the conference. With the hitting and the pitching we have, I don't see why we shouldn't compete at that level."
Kellen Hiser is sports information assistant at Utah Valley University. For more information on Wolverine athletics, visit WolverineGreen.com.