The Utah Valley University softball team makes its National Invitational Softball Championship debut on Wednesday against in-state foe Weber State at the NISC Las Vegas Regional.
The Wolverines (21-29, 10-4 WAC) and Wildcats (27-24, 14-7 Big Sky) will open the five-team regional, hosted by UNLV, on Wednesday at 1 p.m. MT, at Eller Media Stadium.
The postseason appearance marks Utah Valley's second in program history, as it previously won the WAC Tournament in its inaugural year in the league en route to earning the school's first berth of any team sport to the NCAA Tournament in 2014.
This season, UVU earned the WAC's automatic bid to the second-year NISC after posting a program-best second-place finish in WAC play with a 10-4 league record. The Wolverines won eight of their final nine league games of the season on their way to recording the second-place conference finish.
After finishing in second place in the regular season and earning a first-round bye for the WAC Tournament, Utah Valley then posted a 1-2 outing at the conference tournament last week on its way to finishing fourth at the league tournament. After falling to the sixth-seeded UMKC Kangaroos in the opener, 7-4, the Wolverines responded by winning a tightly-contested 6-3 extra-inning ballgame over No. 5 CSU Bakersfield to advance in the consolation bracket. The Wolverines had their 2018 WAC Tournament come to a close with an 18-7 eight-inning loss to No. 4 Grand Canyon. GCU hit a two-run home run in the sixth inning to force extras and then went on to score 11 runs in the eighth to eliminate UVU from the tournament. The host and top-seeded New Mexico State Aggies went on to win the 2018 WAC Tournament by going 3-0 at the event.
Skylar Cook and Kaylee Bott led the Wolverines offensively at the WAC Tournament by respectively hitting .500 and .455. Cook went 6-for-12 on the weekend and tied a WAC Tournament record with three stolen bases (3-for-3), while Bott earned WAC All-Tournament Team honors after going 5-for-11 with a double, a triple, a run scored and a run batted in. First-team all-conference performer Lyndsay Steveron led the Wolverines in the power numbers at the tournament with two home runs on five RBIs. The 2017 WAC Pitcher of the Year Lauren Frailey Spendlove led UVU in the circle by posting a 1.91 ERA and a 0-0 win-loss record in 7.1 innings of work. Frailey Spendlove allowed just two earned runs on eight hits at the tournament.
Utah Valley earned three of the four major conference awards on the eve of the conference tournament, as senior right-hander Makayla Shadle was named the WAC Pitcher of the Year, freshman first baseman Peyton Angulo earned WAC Freshman of the Year honors and second-year head coach TJ Hubbard was tabbed the WAC Coach of the Year. The honors marked the second-straight year that UVU took home WAC Pitcher and Freshman of the Year accolades after current Wolverines Frailey Spendlove and Caragh Morris won the honors in 2017. This season, Shadle, Angulo and Steverson also earned first-team all-conference recognition, while junior outfielder Brianna Moeller was named to the league's second team.
Moeller paces the Wolverines on the season with a .352 batting average, 19 extra-base hits, 32 runs scored and 81 total bases. Angulo is next with a .339 average, and Steverson leads the way in the power numbers with 10 home runs and 41 RBIs. Shadle holds a team-best 3.23 ERA, a 6-9 record and three saves.
The trip will mark UVU's second of the season to UNLV's Eller Media Stadium. The Wolverines opened their 2018 campaign at UNLV's Sportco Kick Off Classic in February and recorded a 1-4 record with an 8-2 victory in-state foe Southern Utah and setbacks to No. 16 Minnesota (8-3), Creighton (15-1), UNLV (8-0) and North Dakota State (2-1).
Versus the regional field
Utah Valley has faced all but one of the teams this season that will be playing in the NISC Las Vegas Regional this week. The Wolverines hold a 1-7 record on the year against the fellow NISC squads, as they went 1-3 against Nevada, 0-3 versus Weber State and 0-1 against the host UNLV Rebels. The lone opponent UVU hasn't face is UC Riverside. UCR is coached by former Utah Valley head coach Nikki Palmer, who led the Wolverines to the program's first and only NCAA Tournament appearance in 2014.
About Weber State
The 2018 co-Big Sky Conference Champion Weber State Wildcats enter the regional with a 27-24 record, but they had their Big Sky Tournament run cut short with a 0-2 showing last week. WSU first fell to Northern Colorado, 6-3, before being eliminated by Portland State, 4-3. A season ago, Weber State won an opening-round NISC Regional to earn a trip to the NISC Championship Round.
First team all-Big Sky performer Ashlyn Visser leads the Wildcats on the season with a .354 batting average, 12 home runs and 55 RBIs, while fellow first-team all-conference honoree Kirtlyn Bohling paces the way in the circle with a 13-11 record and a 3.18 ERA.
Wednesday's opening contest of the NISC Las Vegas Regional will be the 29th all-time meeting between the Wolverines and the Wildcats and fourth of the season. UVU and WSU enter the ballgame deadlocked at 14-14, but WSU has won 11 of the last 12 meetings, including a pair of wins at the Red Desert Classic in St. George in early March, as well as a 4-3 victory in Ogden last month.
On deck for UVU
The winner of the UVU vs. WSU contest will play the host UNLV Rebels on Wednesday at 7 p.m. MT, while the loser will play the loser of Nevada and UC Riverside on Thursday at 1 p.m. The regional champion will then be crowned on Friday and earn a trip to next week's NISC Championship Round.
James Warnick is an assistant sports information director at Utah Valley University. For more information about Wolverine athletics, visit GoUVU.com.