OREM, Utah — The Utah Valley University softball team gets the 2013 season underway this weekend with a quintet of games at the Red Desert Classic in St. George, Utah. The Wolverines will play a pair of doubleheaders on Friday and Saturday and then wrap up the weekend on Sunday.
On Friday, UVU opens the season against former Great West Conference rival South Dakota at 11 a.m. before clashing with in-state foe Southern Utah at 1:30 p.m.
Saturday's twin bill features another familiar foe in past Pacific Coast Softball Conference member Idaho State at 11 a.m., before a 4 p.m. meeting with Oklahoma State of the Big 12.
Sunday's lone contest comes against Nevada at 11 a.m.
Live scoring of each game is available through WolverineGreen.com.
The Wolverines return 14 players and six starters from a 2012 that won a program-best 33 games last season. Included in those returners are first team All-PCSC performers Tiffany Mills and Jamie North.
At pitcher, the senior Mills set single-season records in wins (18), ERA (2.57), strikeouts (162) and saves (8) last season. North — Mills' battery-mate at catcher — batted .356 in PCSC play as a freshman.
Also returning are a coupe big bats in first baseman Amanda Robinson and shortstop Krystin Jachim. They were the only Wolverines to belt double-digit home runs last season, with a school record 13 coming from Robinson and 11 from Jachim.
Friday's season-opener also marks the first time in 14 seasons that longtime head coach Todd Fairbourne will not be filling out the opening-day lineup card. First-year head coach Rachel Hartgrove, an assistant for 10 years under Fairbourne, has taken the reins of the program following Fairbourne's retirement at the end of the 2012 season.
USD returns 10 letterwinners from last year's 16-39 squad. Highlighting the Coyotes' returners are outfielder Katie Dinning and pitcher Erica Denney. A sophomore from Omaha, Dinning let USD in batting last season with a .284 average and notched a pair of four-hit games. Denney, a senior from Sioux City, Iowa, was the `Yotes top pitcher a season ago, going 10-18 with a 3.47 ERA.
"We are familiar with South Dakota from our Great West days and we know they are a tough team," Hartgrove said. "Playing in the Summit League last season exposed them to some higher quality competition and I'm sure it will be a good matchup to start off the season for us."
UVU is 4-1 all-time against USD. The Wolverines claimed the last meeting 7-6 on March 27, 2010, in Dallas, Tex.
SUU posted a 29-24 record a season ago, including a 15-9 mark in Summit League play. The Thunderbirds return 10 letterwinners and eight starters to this year's team, including senior outfielder Mikkel Griffin. Last season the St. George native led SUU in batting at .404 and also topped the team in home runs with 12 on her way to a Summit League Player of the Year recognition.
"SUU has a very good pitcher in Zimmerman," Hartgrove said. "She's going to make it tough on us and their coaches have done a great job in developing their hitters."
The Wolverines are 6-10-1 all-time against SUU but swept last year's two-game series in early February.
ISU, which will play its first season in the Big Sky Conference this year after spending the previous four as UVU's PCSC divisional rival, went 12-36 last year with a 10th place finish in the league. The Bengals are led by senior Amanda Fitzsimmons — last year's PCSC Mountain Division Player of the Year. Fitzsimmons was a dual threat last season, batting .324 with nine home runs at the plate but also pitching to an 11-13 record and 4.46 ERA from the circle.
"ISU is a tough team with a lot of great hitters," Hartgrove noted. "They can really swing it. I'm anticipating a little bit of a shootout with them since we both know each other so well from the last few years."
UVU and ISU split last year's conference meeting in Pocatello with each side winning two games in the four-game series.
The Cowgirls of OSU went 25-26 in 2012, including an 8-16 mark in the Big 12. Second team All-Big 12 performers Shelby Davis and Tamara Brown return for the Cowgirls. Davis and Brown were first and second, respectively, in batting average for OSU, hitting .310 and .303. Also back is senior pitcher Kat Espinosa, who went 15-13 with a 2.38 ERA last year.
"OSU only had eight home runs as a team last year but we know that number is deceiving as to the ability of their team," Hartgrove said. "They have a quality team that is only two years removed from regionals. It will be a tough matchup for us."
The Cowgirls defeated the Wolverines in the two programs' only other meeting, 12-0 in 2008.
Nevada begins 2013 as a member of the Mountain West Conference, having played the previous eight seasons in the WAC. The Wolfpack went 21-34 last season and have been picked to finish seventh in the MWC this year. Senior first baseman Lauren Lastrapes led Nevada in home runs (7) and RBIs (35) in 2012, and was second on the team with a .307 batting average.
"Historically, Nevada has always represented well in the WAC. They had one of their best teams ever a few seasons ago and they are another team that we don't get to see very often but we know will be very tough," Hartgrove added.
UVU has never beaten the Wolfpack, trailing 5-0 in the series.
Following the Red Desert Classic, the Wolverines spend the next weekend at another invitational. The Easton Desert Classic in Henderson, Nevada, pits UVU against Long Beach State, San Jose State, Cal, UNLV and Hawai'i.
Kellen Hiser is sports information assistant at Utah Valley University. For more information on Wolverine athletics, visit WolverineGreen.com.