As the 2018 softball season gets started, the Utah State program is preparing to use a combination of returning experience and newcomer talent to make its way through a successful campaign. Under the direction of fifth-year head coach Steve Johnson, the Aggies are setting out to find a new team balance and continue building on the program improvements of the last few seasons.

The competition

Utah State’s season gets underway with four preseason tournaments. The Aggies open the year at the Titan Classic, hosted by Cal State Fullerton, with games against Pitt, Cal State Fullerton, Middle Tennessee, Loyola Marymount and Rutgers. From there, USU heads to Las Vegas for the Marucci Desert Classic for games against FIU, Seattle, Buffalo, Hawai’i and Bradley. Tournament play then continues at Texas A&M Corpus Christi, for games against the Islanders, Texas Southern and Omaha. After a single game at Pacific, the tournament season concludes with the Aggie Invitational, hosted by UC Davis. There, USU will play the other Aggies, along with Northern Colorado and Valparaiso.

“This is a good schedule for us to get our feet wet, especially with so many new starters out there. If we have a good opening day against Pitt and Fullerton, then that will really set the tone for the rest of the weekend and the season,” Johnson said. “We’ve got some good matchups for us. We’ve got a lot of games where we can go in and be competitive and win a lot early to gain some momentum. It isn’t filled with big-name teams, but given the makeup of our team right now it is a good schedule to get some wins under our belt and get some confidence going into conference play.”

After concluding tournament play, Utah State hosts its first home game against in-state rival Weber State. Interspersed with Mountain West play, Utah State will play several other non-conference games with multiple contests against BYU, Idaho State, Louisiana Tech and Utah Valley.

“Regional games are important because we want to showcase softball in the state of Utah. We have such a fantastic balance of teams from all levels of conferences from the Pac-12, to the Mountain West, to the Big Sky. It is a great opportunity for fans in Utah to see great college softball,” Johnson said. “It is always important for us to play as many of those games as we can. We want to be the best team in the state of Utah so we need to go out and play everybody that we can. Hopefully we’ll get Utah on our schedule one of these days. But, we want to do what we can with in-state scheduling. It helps us with in-state recruiting. Showcasing for the state is really important for us to have those games.”

The Mountain West portion of the season includes four home and four away series. The Aggies will host Boise State, Nevada, Colorado State and defending conference champions San José State. Road league series include trips to UNLV, Fresno State, New Mexico and San Diego State.

“I don’t know if there has been another year when the conference has been this wide open. A couple of teams have a lot of returners coming back defensively and offensively, but they’ve got big holes in the circle. Other teams have big pitchers back, but question marks on who will fill in defensively and at the plate,” Johnson said. “We’ve got a chance, with having Kellie White and our pitchers and our staff having the most experience, that it will be a matter of who will step up offensively for us to score some runs.”

Utah State was picked fourth in the Mountain West preseason poll. San Diego State was picked to finish first in the conference, claiming 63 points and seven of the league’s first-place votes. San José State followed, earning the two remaining first-place votes and 57 total points. Fresno State was slated third, just ahead of the Aggies with 44 points, while USU took the fourth-place spot with 43 points. Nevada follows in fifth with 37 points, with Colorado State in sixth place with 30 points. Boise State (27 points), UNLV (14 points) and New Mexico (nine points) rounded out the 2018 preseason poll.

“I think San Diego State will be at the top. San José State has a lot of offense back but lost its two top pitchers. They’ll have to find their answers there. Fresno State had some transfers and have a lot of question marks,” Johnson said. “Those three, along with us at the top, recruited well, and it is just a matter of who is going to go out these first few weeks and get the positive experiences going and gain momentum heading into the conference season.”

The returners

Utah State returns six starters to the field this season, including senior third baseman Amee Aarhus, senior catcher Brina Buttacavoli, senior outfielder Jazmin Clarke, junior outfielder Mia Maher, sophomore outfielder Riley Plogger and sophomore pitcher Kellie White. Six other experienced players also return to the diamond for the Aggies.

“We start in the circle with Kellie, the top returning pitcher in the conference right now. She has set some high goals for herself, and with that year of experience and everything that goes along with it, she’s much more prepared for this year. We expect big things out of her,” Johnson said. “Jordyn McCracken has come a really long way. She didn’t pitch much last year, but really worked hard in the summer and the fall and will be in the rotation for us this year. That will be big for her.”

Buttacavoli and junior Bailey Lewis return the most experience behind the plate this season.

“Brina and Bailey, two of our top hitters, are doing a great job behind the plate. It is great to have returners behind the plate who can run things out there,” Johnson said.

The returning experience continues in the field.

“Out in the outfield, Jazmin and Riley have both been all-conference players for us. It will be big for them to continue what they did last year without putting too much pressure on themselves to do too much,” Johnson said. “In the infield, Amee is the only returner that played a lot last season. She has also stepped up her game and is more comfortable with everything. She is going to have to be the leader for us in the infield.”

With some holes in the starting lineup, several returning players will get their chance to start this season.

“Bailee Trapp will be our first baseman. She has a great opportunity to go out there and take over a spot that we need filled,” Johnson said. “Devan Sperry will be our starter at second base. She’s another kid who learned last year watching Victoria Saucedo and Sarina Jaramillo. She really stepped up her game in the spring and will be out there at second.”

The newcomers

Joining the returning players this year are eight freshmen in Kayla Fielder (League City, Texas/Liberty Hill HS), Kennedy Hira (Mission Viejo, California/Capistrano Valley HS), Delaney Hull (Mission Viejo, California/Capistrano Valley HS), Bri Lerma (Downey, California/Mater Dei HS), Emery Marshall (Syracuse, Utah/Syracuse HS), Leah Molina (Mesa, Arizona/Desert Ridge HS), Stephanie Reed (Santa Fe, Texas/Santa Fe HS) and Joely Williamson (Georgetown, Texas/Liberty Hill HS). Johnson expects the freshman class to quickly make an impact and fill in some holes on the field.

“There are a few out there who will jump into some roles. Delaney is one of them and she will be our No. 2 pitcher. She has really taken leaps and bounds. She came in really green and not understanding what college was going to be like, from the playing side of the things,” Johnson said. “She had some good experiences in the fall; some really big moments and some learning moments. She is really one of the key ones.”

Johnson also expects to see an impact from the freshmen in the field and in the batting lineup.

“Leah is going to be a key factor for us. Her speed is off the charts. She’s going to start in right field for us and be a table-setter. She’s done a great job out there,” Johnson said. “Emery is going to be our starter at shortstop. Her big thing will be going out and playing ball. She doesn’t have as much experience as some of the other kids; some of those game reps is where she is going to have to play catch-up on. She is really a natural athlete who can make a lot of plays. She’s got to clear her mind and go out and play. It is a good mix of returners and freshmen out there and there are some kids that need to step up.”

Filling in the holes

After losing half of last year’s starting lineup to graduation, the Aggies have to make adjustments in the field and the lineup this season.

“We’ve got talent. That senior class was very talented and played a lot of innings for us in a lot of positions, and all of them were such big personalities, in their own way. The seniors that graduated drove everything the team did,” Johnson said. “That is the biggest thing we are trying to find right now. It isn’t about talent; it is about finding our personality and finding who we are as a team. Being able to be out there, be relaxed and just play the game is going to be the biggest thing. We’ve got some new kids stepping up and some returners who haven’t been on the field before are stepping into some key positions. We’ve got some freshmen who are going to step in and fill some key roles for us. Overall, once the first pitch comes, what is our personality on the field?”

While the team works to find its chemistry and strengths as the season gets started, Johnson is looking forward to the makeup of the team

“Overall, this team is going to look a lot different than last year. The last couple of years we were more of a power team, we’ve had speed and stole a lot bases last year. But, this year we’ve got much more team speed,” Johnson said. “We’ve got five lefties in the lineup, four of them slappers. It will be a different game from what fans have seen from us in the past. Hopefully it will be an exciting one with the team speed. We’ll do a lot more getting on with short game, using a lot of bunt-and-run, hit-and-run, stealing bases to try and put pressure on the defense with our speed. We’ve got a few power hitters mixed in there that will hopefully drive in the runs and keep us where we’ve been. I’m excited to see how it will take place.”

Goals and expectations

As the season gets underway, Utah State is setting out with the goal of a Mountain West title.

“The kids have set the goal again to win the Mountain West. That is where we are shooting. It is important for us to get out there and take it game by game,” Johnson said. “Once we get out on the dirt and get rolling with things we’ll quickly back into that game mode. We just need to take it one game at a time and can’t look too far down the road.”

After such a strong season in 2017, this season’s edition of the Aggies looks to build up from there.

“The expectation has been set for this program now with winning seasons each of the past two years and a conference championship going into the final week of the season,” Johnson said. “That is the standard that has been set and that is the standard these kids need to uphold. It is just time to get out there and get after it.”

Megan McCuistion is an Assistant Media Relations Coordinator at Utah State.