NORTH DAKOTA 2012 SOFTBALL SEASON OUTLOOK
The University of North Dakota softball team went through a coaching change before last season and has set its goals high for the 2013 season - to win the conference title in its first year as a Big Sky Conference team.
Second-year head coach Eric Oakley took over the helm of the North Dakota squad in 2011-12 and in his first season of transitioning the team under his coaching style UND posted an overall 18-29 record in 2012.
UND lost two seniors to graduation in outfielder Maggie O'Neal (Overland Park, Kan.) and first baseman Erica Younan (Chico, Calif.) and are returning all of their pitchers and five players who had above .300 batting averages. Its roster will consist of six seniors, seven juniors, three sophomores, and seven freshmen.
The team will bank on its experience in reaching its goals as it is the first time the UND squad has had more than two seniors that played all four years since 2006.
A NEW SEASON - A NEW START
North Dakota will take to the field, opening its season at the Iowa State Tournament against South Dakota State at 3:45 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 8. In the round-robin tournament, UND will also play Indiana State and IPFW before closing out the tournament against the host Cyclones in a non-conference game.
Oakley said that the goals for opening weekend are to come out with strong wins and with an understanding of where everyone's at on the team.
"We've really been working on fundamentals," Oakley said. "This weekend we're looking to experiment with different lineups, look at our freshman and see what they can do, then go from there."
As for the season, Oakley is aiming for the Big Sky Conference title.
"If we are aggressive, utilize our speed and get timely hits, I think we can make it happen," Oakley said.
A NEW CONFERENCE
North Dakota will be experiencing its first year in Big Sky Conference play, but it will not be alone.
A new era in the BSC begins in 2012-13 as with the addition of UND and Southern Utah, the league added softball as a conference sport with an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament at stake for winner of the Big Sky Softball Championship (May 9-11). Four of the leagues seven teams will earn births to the tournament.
With being a first- year fully-transitioned Division I team, UND was picked sixth overall by the league's coaches in the preseason poll, and is going up against Idaho State, Northern Colorado, Portland State, Sacramento State, Southern Utah, and Weber State conference wise. PSU was picked to finish first with five of the seven first-place votes.
"I think we have a chance to win it this year," Oakley said. "It's going to be competitive but we are able to field a team who can win a championship."
The first goal is to be one of the top four teams in order to advance to the conference tournament.
"We split with Southern Utah and played a strong game against Portland State last year, so I think it'll be a pretty balanced conference from top to bottom," Oakley said.
North Dakota returns every position besides first base and Oakley is expecting that leadership and experience to pay off this year.
Seniors Michelle Frank (Chaska, Minn.), Emma Gronseth (Forest Grove, Ore.) and Abby Jo Tometich (Aberdeen, Wash.), along with sophomore Lexa Twist (Winnipeg, Manitoba), are all returning and are projected to lead from the circle this season.
"If our pitchers can give us a chance to win, we can score runs," Oakley said.
With the addition of assistant coach Amanda Montalto and Jessica Richards, Oakley has been able to spend more time focusing on pitching.
"Both Abby Jo and Michelle look really good right now," Oakley said. "You can tell they've been in the weight room which is going to make us faster and stronger all around."
Offensively, UND returns seniors Cami Bennent (Grants Pass, Ore.), Kenna Olsen (Issaquah, Wash.) and Brittany Baker (Buena Park, Calif.), along with junior Caralyn Chewning (Willamina, Ore.).
"We're looking to use Kenna a little differently this year," Oakley said. "We may not start her, but instead we're considering using her as a pinch hitter, that way we can pick her at-bats."
Junior Courtney Gonzales (Costa Mesa, Calif.) was solid behind the plate last year and is expected to be a key asset for the team this year.
UND has brought on board seven new freshman who are ready to play right out of the gate.
Freshman Nicole Babrowski (Oak Lawn, Ill.) will lead off in center field, while Emily Bell (Elgin, Ill.) and Taylor Hansen (Chelsea, Mich.) will try their hand at in fielding. Megan Keegan (Elk Grove, Ill.) will be a strong asset offensively with her batting capabilities.
"Nicole will make an impact right away," Oakley said. "She's bringing speed which we haven't had in many years.
"This team has a lot of depth, and with having more people who can come off the bench, we're in for a great season."