Season Preview: Young Gallaudet softball team anxious for new season, field
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The 2011 season was Gallaudet University softball team's first in the North Eastern Athletic Conference (NEAC) where the Bison experienced success that they hope is an early sign of even better years to come. The Bison enjoyed their best season in five years (10-26, 7-13 NEAC) and are returning nine varsity players, including an experienced core group of six players who started over 80 percent of the games for the Bison last season. More importantly, GU brings back three of the top five hitters and its primary pitching rotation from last season as second-year head coach Joseph Kolcun sets his sights on a deep NEAC championship tournament run in 2012. Last year, Gallaudet's season ended earlier than it would had liked as it ran into stiff competition in the NEAC tournament, first losing to South Division leaders Wilson College (23-12, 18-2 NEAC) and then suffering a tough loss to second-place Penn St.-Harrisburg (21-16, 15-5 NEAC).
Coach Kolcun will have some gaps to fill in the line-up card, but the squad will not lack experience and talent. He will have three all-conference players returning this season to the lead the squad, and all of the veterans will be expected to mentor the incoming freshmen, some who may see some significant playing time in their rookie season. Gallaudet finished fourth in the NEAC South Division last season, but will be looking to improve in every area of its game, especially in protecting at the plate and pitching efficiency if it wants to contend and make a push for a NEAC title run.
"From my perspective, I really enjoy this team very much as it has a lot of character and personality. Their chemistry is really beyond my expectations as well as my assistant coaches. They are having a lot of fun on the field as well as off," said Kolcun.
The Bison showed a propensity for getting base runners aboard last season, finishing sixth in the NEAC in batting average (.299), hits (258) and runs (201), and were tied for third in walks (125). Unfortunately, getting those runners across home plate proved to be more elusive as their hitters also led the NEAC in strikeouts (211). Gallaudet will need to take advantage of those base runners and convert more runs if it hopes to break out of the middle of the pack in the conference standings.
"This year I'm seeing a lot more offense than defense," said Kolcun. "We need to focus on the gaps that have to be filled and develop their defensive skills. We are aiming to reduce the errors and improve confidence in their game. The coaches are working hard to improve every aspect on defense and offense as well. I strongly believe that defense will win games but I'm looking forward to seeing our hitters show their aggressiveness to keep us in the games."
Last season, GU pitchers improved but still had some expected growing pains. This season they will need to reduce the number of opposing teams' base runners to give their offense an even better chance to win games. The Bison were third in the NEAC in hits allowed, and led the NEAC in runs (324) and base on balls (230) surrendered.
"It will be a challenging season for us especially with the new change to the playoff system," said Kolcun. "The top three of each division will earn a berth into the tournament. Our aim is to work hard to get into the top three so we can continue our season. To make it into the playoffs would be great but to win the conference title is our biggest goal."
This year will be the inaugural season for the Bison's new softball field complex as GU continues with its impressive and numerous upgrades of the athletic facilities on campus. The new field is a highly durable and efficient field turf surface and will eventually include stadium seating, lights, concessions, and a press box when fully completed. Construction began last October and the field is expected to be ready for play this spring.
GU will field the most experience in the infield, which may be the backbone to this squad as it tries to establish it's footing early on. Offensively, the Bison will once again be able to get on base and consistently provide scoring opportunities. Defensively, they'll get in front of balls and will rely on their veteran infield to keep balls from reaching the outfield and reduce the opponents' scoring opportunities.
All-conference first team honoree Nicole O'Malley (Fredericksburg, Va.), second team selection Jessica Buckwalter (Palmyra, Mo.) and junior Leeza Cantu (Selma, Calif.) started 90 games collectively last season, and will anchor the infield on the corners (first and third base) and at catcher.
O'Malley, recipient of the 2011 Most Improved Player award, will return behind home plate to quarterback the infield for another season. Last year, the junior hit .322 at the plate and was second on the team in runs (29), hits (29) and at-bats, as well as third on the team in total bases (35). O'Malley was also 11th in the NEAC in on-base percentage (.470). She moved between catcher and the middle infield positions last season and was fourth in the conference in picking-off opponents attempting to steal a base. She posted a .901 fielding percentage and recorded 96 putouts, and will be the primary catcher for the upcoming season.
Buckwalter will once again hold down first base after hitting .358 in 2011 and leading the Bison in on-base percentage (.482). But just as important, the sure-handed senior also led the team in putouts (134) and fielding percentage (.986), and was tied for third in the NEAC in fielding double plays (five).
Defensive specialist Cantu rounds out the veteran group of returning infielders that will be looked to anchor third base and is expected to limit mental mistakes and errors this season. The junior contributed offensively last season with 21 hits and 14 runs batted in (RBI) in 31 games.
Providing a big lift to GU's middle infield will be the return of Kara Gulvas (Crown Point, Ind.) to the shortstop position. Gulvas missed the 2011 season due to injury, but as a freshman in 2010 she started 26 games and batted .356 with a slugging (.441) and on-base (.433) percentage that would have been among the team leaders last season.
"I'm excited to have Kara return from a year off with her Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) injury. She has shown great leadership on the field. She shows promise and is working hard to improve her skills as a shortstop," said Kolcun. "I'm excited to have her for the next three years as a shortstop and a great player that will guide the young players."
Sophomores Kiara Suarez (Perth Amboy, N.J.) and Caitlin Stevens (Glen Allen, Va.) saw limited action last season but may see an increase in their playing time and contributions in the infield in 2012. Fellow sophomore Rachel Sweigart (Big Rock, Ill.) will be able to provide some relief in the infield when not starting on the mound.
The buff and blue have four new players who will vie for playing time in the infield. Mia Fernandez (Artesia, N.M.) will start at second base and back-up third base and right field. Her demonstrated power has the coaching staff excited about what she could do in her first season at Gallaudet.
"Mia is very excited to get back into softball as she missed her senior year in high school. She is one of the few power hitters we have," said Kolcun. "The more she dedicates herself in batting practice the better chance for her to be a huge threat at the plate. She will become a great player for us over the next four years."
Coach Kolcun is also impressed with Victoria Rainey (Danvers, Ill.) and her ambitious nature at the plate and desire to learn from mistakes to be a better player. She may see some significant playing time backing up the infield. Natalie Owen (Peggs, Okla.) will back-up and be mentored by O'Malley behind the plate. The young recruit will be making strides to improve defensively as the season progresses. Stephanie Weiss (Wellington, Fla.) will be joining the softball team fresh off the recent women's basketball season. Weiss is a natural athlete who has shown some impressive skill in hitting from the left side of the plate in practices thus far.
"This is what I've been seeking for a long time (left-handed hitter) and I'm excited to help and develop her [Weiss] skills as a hitter as well as a slap hitter," said Kolcun.
Gallaudet will have to move some players around to cover the loss of two contributors from the 2011 outfield, including All-NEAC second team selection Michelin Barron and Tiffany Narcisco, who together started 55 games. Coach Kolcun will be able to move some experience around to alleviate the lack of veteran depth in the outfield but newer players are sure to receive some significant playing time.
Boasting the 2011 Most Outstanding Player award and making a big return to the Gallaudet outfield for her junior season will be All-NEAC second team selection Alicia Johnson (San Jose, Calif.). Johnson is GU's primary offensive threat and led the Bison in nearly every offensive category last season, including batting average (.380), hits (38), runs (31), RBI (30), home runs (three) and slugging percentage (.580), as well as fourth in on-base percentage (.431). Johnson finished the 2011 season ranked No. 15 in the NEAC in batting average, seventh in home runs and was tied for eighth in both runs and RBI.
"She's [Johnson] been selected as a captain because she has great leadership and is a great influence on the team. The team is honored to have her as their captain," said Kolcun. "I have seen her work hard to get better in hitting as well as eager to improve her pitching skills. She keeps motivating herself to improve her pitching technique and mechanics."
New to the Bison softball team and viewed as a potential candidate to step into the vacant outfield position is former GU women's basketball great and Division III All-American Easter Faafiti (Pittsburg, Calif.). Faafiti finished her basketball career after the 2010-11 season as one of the most decorated athletes in the history of Gallaudet basketball but will only have one season of eligibility with the softball team.
"Easter is a natural athlete and has picked up quickly on playing the outfield and practicing some at shortstop. She will be one of the top hitters on this team because she shows no fear in stepping into the batter's box and hitting the ball hard," said Kolcun.
Three-sport freshman Elena Ciccarelli (Whitesboro, N.Y.) will also see time in the outfield and at other positions throughout the season. Ciccarelli, a veteran outfielder on her high school team, has impressed the coaches with her knowledge of the game and defensive technique.
"With Ciccarelli, Faafiti and Johnson starting in the outfield, they look daunting and very determined. I've called them, 'Los Tres Monstruos' [The Three Monsters]," quipped Kolcun.
GU's pitching has made steady improvements over the past couple seasons, and will need to continue that progress to breakthrough and make a deep run into the NEAC tournament and a chance for the crown this season. In addition to reducing the number of runs and walks allowed, the staff will also be focused on reducing the number of hits allowed (290, second most in NEAC in 2011).
The primary starters from last season's rotation return in Johnson and Sweigart this season after adding another year of experience under their belts. Coach Kolcun will also have a veteran player who is capable of returning to the mound for the first time in two seasons, as well as a new arm in the bullpen.
Johnson, when not roaming the outfield, was one of the primary starters in the circle for Gallaudet last season and recorded four of the Bison's 10 victories. In 17 appearances, she pitched over 77 innings, and tallied 11 complete games in only 14 starts. Johnson limited opposing batters to a .243 average last season, so if the junior hurler reduces the number of walks allowed (119 in 77.2 innings) she should be able to significantly reduce the scoring opportunities that opponents would have this season.
Sweigart, the 2011 Coaches' Award recipient, recorded the second most innings in the circle last season, having pitched over 66 innings in 15 appearances. More importantly, she recorded nine complete games in 12 starts, and tallied five victories to lead all Gallaudet pitchers. Sweigart will need to be more aggressive in the circle and keep the ball down to reduce opposing hitters' average (.347) over the course of the season.
To build some depth in the bullpen, O'Malley will make a return to the mound for the first time since 2010, where as a freshman she made a limited number of appearances (eight games) and recorded a victory. But good things are expected from incoming freshman Montana Murphy (Simi Valley, Calif.) who is expected to make a number of appearance on the mound this season.
"In the last four weeks, my pitching coaches are pleased with her improvement," said Kolcun. "To help increase her confidence she will be a starter later in the season. I also like what I see in her consistent hitting."
GU softball fielded a very young team in 2011 (five freshmen and four sophomore) and will most likely benefit from those experiences to go along with a favorable balanced schedule (20 home, 19 away) this season. The Bison will open the season at home against Baptist Bible (Pa.) College on March 3 before they head south for an eight-game marathon in Florida for Spring Break from March 11-15. Upon their return, the buff and blue will enjoy a grand homestand as 14 of their next 16 games are slated to be played at the new GU Softball Complex, beginning with Catholic University of America on March 18. The homestand is highlighted with a visit from defending South Division champion Wilson College, the 2011 NEAC runners up, on March 28. After a visit to Penn St.-Harrisburg on April 6, Gallaudet will return to D.C. to repay the favor and host Harrisburg on April 15. The Bison will then travel to NEAC powerhouse Wilson College on April 18, and close out the regular season at Penn St.-Abington on April 22. The NEAC tournament will begin on April 28.
The Bison earned valuable experience last season, their first in a new conference with additional travel requirements, and showed NEAC opponents that Gallaudet will compete and be a force to deal with during the season. If Gallaudet can improve its pitching efficiency and protection at the plate, it can take the next step in elevating its program and claim a conference championship.