Hans Koepsell, UVU Marketing
Utah Valley's Kirsten Andersen (left-center) looks to turn a double play against Weber State at Wolverine Field on May 2, 2017. Andersen will open her senior campaign this weekend in Las Vegas.

The Utah Valley University softball team opens its 2018 season this weekend at the Sportco Kick Off Classic in Las Vegas, Nevada. The tournament will run Friday to Sunday at UNLV's Eller Media Stadium, and the Wolverines will face five different opponents, including 2017 NCAA Tournament teams Minnesota and North Dakota State.

UVU officially opens the season by taking on the 2017 Big Ten Champions and 16th-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers on Friday at 2:30 p.m. MT, and the Creighton Bluejays on Friday at 9:15 p.m. The Wolverines then face the host UNLV Rebels on Saturday at 7 p.m., before taking on in-state rival Southern Utah in the nightcap at 9:15 p.m. Utah Valley then closes the opening tournament against the 2017 Summit League Champion NDSU Bison on Sunday at 12:15 p.m. Fans can follow live stats for all five games by visiting UNLV's website, as well as live video for the UNLV game on Saturday evening.

"It's going to be great to get out and be able to compete against somebody other than ourselves this weekend," said second-year head UVU coach TJ Hubbard. "We've been blessed with incredibly warm and dry weather as of late in which we have been able to practice outside for the last couple of weeks. We're excited to get to Las Vegas and officially open the 2018 season."

In Hubbard's first year at the helm of UVU softball a season ago, the Wolverines finished with a 16-24 overall record and posted their best conference finish since joining the WAC by tying for third with a 7-8 league clip. Utah Valley also earned a program best No. 2 seed for last year's WAC Tournament.

Hubbard and the Wolverines welcome back seven returning starters from last year's club, as well as 13 letterwinners in all. The 2017 WAC Pitcher of the Year and 2017 WAC Freshman of the Year are both back for UVU this season in senior pitcher Lauren Frailey Spendlove and sophomore outfielder/utility Caragh Morris. Frailey Spendlove went 13-9 with a 3.59 ERA in the circle a year ago for UVU, while Morris posted the second-best batting average on the team by hitting .357 with eight doubles, three homers and 28 RBIs. Frailey Spendlove and Morris were named preseason all-WAC a week ago.

"We return a lot of leadership and experience from last year," said Hubbard. "We have several kids on the infield, as well as a couple of others in the outfield, that had large contributions to our success last season. That always makes it easier for me that they all have a year of experience under their belt, and I'm looking forward to (seeing) what those kids can do now after learning what they did a season ago."

Besides Frailey Spendlove and Morris, the Wolverines also welcome back five more returning starters in infielders Kirsten Andersen, Lyndsay Steverson and Taleigh Williams, outfielder Eryn Sustayta and catcher Basia Query.

Utah Valley also welcomes in a number of newcomers to the fold, 13 newcomers in all, which includes nine transfers and four freshmen. The true freshmen are Peyton Angulo (UTL, Upland California/Upland HS), Kierstyn Foley (C, Huntington Beach, California/Huntington Beach HS), Kiara Kennedy (INF, Phoenix, Arizona/Desert Vista HS) and Linnah Rebolledo (INF, Riverside, California/Ramona HS). The transfers include Katie Basinger (OF, College of Southern Idaho), Kaylee Bott (INF, Salt Lake CC), Karly Bunderson (INF, UNLV), Skylar Cook (OF, College of Southern Idaho), Haylee Eskelson (INF, College of Southern Idaho), Addie Jensen (P, Salt Lake CC), Brianna Moeller (OF, Central Arizona), Madison Sisco (INF, Salt Lake CC) and Alex Valencia (UTL, Salt Lake CC). The Wolverines also welcome to the diamond pitcher Lexi Sorensen, who redshirted last season after transferring from Loyola Marymount.

"We have three or four traditional freshmen and 13 newcomers in all, but a number of them have collegiate softball experience," Hubbard said. "They are still new to our system, however, but they are not new to the game. I feel like we have experience and leadership from a lot of different levels of softball."

All-time in season openers

Utah Valley enters the tournament with a 7-7 all-time record in season openers at the NCAA Division I level. The Wolverines' last opening-day win was a 4-3 extra-inning win over South Dakota on February 8, 2013, in St. George, Utah.

About the competition

Minnesota enters the weekend ranked 16th in the preseason poll after going 56-5 a season ago and winning the Big Ten with an impressive 22-1 conference record. The Gophers welcome back a trio of players that were named to USA Softball's Top 50 Watch List in Maddie Houlihan, Kendyn Lindaman and Danielle Parlich. All three received first-team all-Big Ten honors a season ago, and Lindaman is the reigning Big Ten Player and Freshman of the Year, as well as a returning All-American.

Friday's opener will be the second all-time meeting between the Wolverines and Gophers. Minnesota holds a 1-0 advantage after defeating UVU, 9-0, at the same tournament in Las Vegas in 2016.

Creighton is a member of the Big East Conference that went 18-32 a year ago and 8-13 in the Big East. The Bluejays were picked to finish fifth in the Big East this season after taking sixth in 2017. Creighton welcomes back second-team all-Big East selection Ashley Cantu who led CU in hitting last year with a .346 average.

Friday's nightcap will mark the second all-time meeting between UVU and CU. Utah Valley enters play with a 1-0 series lead after defeating the Bluejays on March 11, 2014, in Florida.

UNLV compiled a 25-27 record a season ago and an 8-16 clip in Mountain West Conference play. The Rebels were picked to finish eighth in the league this season after taking eighth a season ago. UNLV returns 12 letterwinners this year.

Saturday's meeting against UNLV will mark the 10th all-time meeting between the Wolverines and the Rebels. UNLV enters play holding an 8-1 series lead. UVU's lone win was a 4-1 victory during the 2004 season.

In-state foe Southern Utah went 15-31 overall in 2017 and 10-11 in Big Sky play. The Thunderbirds were picked to tie for fifth in the Big Sky this season after taking fourth last year. SUU welcomes back a number of key contributors from last year's squad, which includes the Big Sky Co-Newcomer of the Year Sarah Murphy.

Saturday's game will mark the 22nd all-time meeting between the Wolverines and T-Birds. SUU holds a slight 11-9-1 series lead, but UVU has won five of the last six meetings.

North Dakota State went 29-33 overall in 2017 and 11-7 in Summit League play. The Bison then won the Summit League Tournament to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the eighth time in the past nine seasons. NDSU was picked again to win the Summit League this season and returns six all-Summit League selections, including first-team members Jacquelyn Sertic and Montana DeCamp.

Sunday's weekend finale will mark the sixth all-time meeting between the Wolverines and Bison. NDSU enters play holding an unblemished 5-0 series record.

"We will face three teams right off of the bat that have considerable postseason experience and are very competitive," Hubbard said. "Minnesota is nationally ranked, and all three clubs have veteran leadership, returning All-Americans and all-conference kids. This first weekend is definitely going to be a test for us competition-wise."

Up next for UVU

Following the opening tournament, Utah Valley will return to Utah for an in-state doubleheader against Southern Utah in St. George on Sunday, Feb. 25. The Wolverines will then return to St. George the following week to take part in the Red Desert Classic (March 2-4). UVU's first home game is March 21, when it welcomes Idaho State and Utah State to town.

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