Two years ago, the Nevada softball team embarked on a wonderful journey, one that would ultimately result in the school’s first-ever Western Athletic Conference championship and its second berth into the NCAA Tournament. That 2008 season, which ended in the NCAA Regional championship game in Los Angeles, laid the stage for the future of Wolf Pack softball.
The 2009 squad, under the direction of then-first-year coach Matt Meuchel solidified the Wolf Pack’s footing as one of the top programs on the West Coast as Nevada won another WAC championship and earned a spot in the NCAA Tournament once again.
The 2010 season is one filled with great expectations under Meuchel, now in his second season, as the Wolf Pack returns a solid mix of talent and a host of newcomers ready to make an immediate impact. This year’s journey will be a tough one as Nevada will again face a strong non-conference schedule and WAC slate that gets seemingly gets more competitive each and every season.
“The core of this year’s team is very much representative of what people have come to expect from Nevada softball,” said Meuchel, who guided the Pack to a 40-19 season last year, including a 15-5 mark in WAC play. “We believe we have one of the top offenses in the country and we feel our pitching is at a similar level. I like the balance that we have on our roster and I’m excited to see how some of our younger players develop this season to match the experience that we do return. We believe that we are on the road to becoming one of the elite programs in the country.”
Nevada returns five position player starters from a year ago in addition to a pair of top pitchers. Among the returners are three Louisville Slugger/NFCA All-Region players in 2010 in pitcher Katie Holverson, third baseman Sam Bias and outfielder Britton Murdock. Bias and Holverson each earned first-team All-WAC honors in 2009 – with Holverson garnering Pitcher of the Year accolades – as did junior catcher Noelle Micka. Senior first baseman Kelsey Starr returns after earning All-WAC second team honors last year.
That core group of returners has Nevada receiving votes in both national Top 25 polls this year, with the Wolf Pack just outside the top 25 teams in each of the two polls.
As strong as Nevada has been offensively in recent years, perhaps the strength of this year’s team lies in the pitching circle with senior Katie Holverson and sophomore Mallary Darby returning. That one-two punch was a fearsome duo in 2009 and is poised to get better this season.
But the lineup will be just as fearsome with Micka at the top of the lineup after two sensational seasons in Silver and Blue. Bias, Murdock and Starr return in the middle of the lineup and the Pack also returns junior shortstop Danielle Patrick, an All-WAC pick in 2008 who made the 2009 All-WAC Tournament team.
Seniors Jessica Haight and Amanda Nims and sophomore Kortnee Wiley also return from last year’s team and each of that trio will fight for starting jobs this season. They’ll be joined by five talented newcomers seeking to make an immediate impact on this year’ team.
The Pack will again face a strong non-conference schedule before getting into what should be a tough battle in Western Athletic Conference play. Over the last two seasons, the WAC has taken six spots in the NCAA Tournament, including two by Nevada.
“Our offense, specifically our run-producing abilities, will continue to be a strength, as will our pitching,” Meuchel said. “But I think we’ve added to our overall athleticism and we hope to see some more team speed on the base paths this year. Those elements are all important because when you look at our non-conference schedule and how tough the WAC will be, we’ll need to have as many tools as possible at our disposal to continue upon the success our program has had.”
Holverson enters her senior season with an opportunity to leave a legacy as the most accomplished pitcher in school history. Her name is all over the Wolf Pack record book and she’s coming off the finest season of her career as she went 28-11 with a 1.70 ERA in 2009 while winning WAC Pitcher of the Year honors.
She’ll be joined by Darby, who had perhaps the best freshman season of a Nevada pitcher in history. Darby went 12-8 with a 3.11 ERA and put up 177 strikeouts in just 151.0 innings in 2009. She also tossed the third no-hitter in school history with an 8-0 win at Boise State on April 11 of last year.
“I feel like we have one of the best one-two punches in the country with Katie and Mallary,” Meuchel said. “And they complement each other perfectly as Katie relies more on her velocity while Mallary focuses more on movement.
“The big thing with these two is experience as Katie has accomplished more here than any other pitcher we’ve had and Mallary is coming off a strong freshman season. I think we will see an additional maturity out of each of them with Katie being a senior and Darby transitioning from being a freshman to a sophomore.”
Meuchel said that the Pack might also use Haight in the circle at times to develop some depth and have a third option if needed.
“Jessica hasn’t been used at the college level as a pitcher but she was an accomplished pitcher at the high school level and she’s shown some potential during practice.”
As of a hitter as Noelle Micka is – and she enters her junior year with a career average of .380 – she just as good behind the plate, which often gets overlooked.
“Noelle doesn’t get the attention she deserves as a defensive player,” Meuchel said. “She might not have the best arm strength, but she throws out runners. She handles the pitchers well and balls just don’t get by her.”
Micka has committed just two errors over her first two seasons and enters her junior campaign with a .994 career fielding percentage.
Meuchel said that juniors Britton Murdock and Justine Cooper are among the options behind the dish if needed.
At first base, Nevada returns Kelsey Starr, who has started there for the past two seasons after beginning her career at third base. A career .299 hitter, Starr saw her production dip slightly last year, if only because she missed the final 10 games of the season with a leg injury.
Meuchel will be looking for Starr to again be a mainstay in the middle of the lineup while also providing leadership as a senior.
“Kelsey has really stepped up and showed the maturity you would expect from a senior,” Meuchel said. “She is certainly one of the vocal leaders on the team and we are expecting her to have one of her best offensive years.
“We also have a lot of options at first base as its one of the deepest positions we have.”
Senior Jessica Haight filled in when Starr went down at the end of 2009 and Haight surged in the conference and NCAA tournaments. She will compete for time at first, as well as in the outfield and as the designated player.
A trio of newcomers could also push for playing time at first base as freshmen Megan Fincher, Lauren Lastrapes and Sam Puzey are all capable at the position and bring big bats to the lineup.
At second base, Nevada has the tough task of replacing four-year starter Kym Silagyi, who is now a volunteer assistant coach with the team. Silagyi set a number of records during her time, including the school’s all-time hits mark.
But Meuchel believes the Pack has a more-than-capable replacement in freshman Chelsea Barilli, who brings a new element to the team.
“Offensively, she’s going to do some damage on the base paths,” Meuchel said. “She has some good speed and she combines that with some great instincts and footwork. Defensively, she’s not going to make a lot of errors. She’s shown that she is a steady player. She is just a freshman but there is a lot of maturity to her game.”
Junior Britton Murdock could fill in a second if needed, as could sophomore Kortnee Wiley. Barilli is the likely backup at shortstop if needed.
Junior Danielle Patrick returns to the shortstop position that she has occupied each of the past two seasons. Patrick has shown flashes of brilliance, both offensively and defensively, during her first two years. Case in point: She was Nevada’s best hitter in the WAC Tournament and NCAA Regionals last year. But what’s been missing is consistent play.
“It’s really nice to have a two-year starter back at shortstop,” Meuchel said. “If Danielle’s fall is any indication, she’s got a chance to have a great season. She’s very talented but she hasn’t really showed consistency during her first two years. That’s the step we need her to take and I think she’s poised to do that this year.”
In three years at Nevada, Sam Bias has been a steady, run-producing machine. She’s crushed 23 home runs and driven in more than a 100 runs and her on-base+slugging percentage is near .900.
This year, Meuchel is looking for Bias to step up in another phase: leadership. Entering the season, Bias has not disappointed.
“I expect Sam to provide a ton of leadership for this team and she has been working very hard at that aspect,” Meuchel said.
Bias will again be an important cog in the Wolf Pack lineup but last year she showed a new element to her game with 13 stolen bases after just six steals her first two seasons.
“We expect to see Sam continue the production she’s had in her career,” Meuchel said. “We are looking for Sam to be more of a catalyst in our offense – getting on base and scoring runs – because she will likely be batting higher in the lineup.”
The freshman Barilli would be an option at third if needed, as would newcomer Justine Cooper.
The Wolf Pack will be missing two of its mainstays from the past four years due to the graduation of Sarah Hunt, one of the best defensive players in school history, and Brittany Puzey, the most decorated Wolf Pack softball player in history. But the Pack has plenty of options and plenty of depth to work with going into the 2010 season.
“Entering the season, we know we have five very good defensive and offensive outfielders,” Meuchel said. “So it will be interesting to see how that competition and depth works out. We’ll try some different combinations and sets and see what works best for us, both in terms of the lineup and defensively.”
Murdock, who played extensively in the outfield last year, should occupy one of the spots and Nevada has used Haight and Amanda Nims, a pair of seniors, in the outfield during fall ball and in practice leading up to the season.
“We are looking for Britton to continue what she’s done, most likely as the cleanup hitter,” Meuchel said. “You know what you get with her – she’s going to hit for average, drive in runs and get on base. She’s got a great eye at the plate and a great head offensively.
“The big thing about Jessica is that she has earned a place in this lineup. She’s taken advantage of some of the opportunities she’s had. I am very impressed with what she showed late in the season last year when she had the opportunity and we need her to seize those opportunities again this year. And Nims has a great chance to start this season. She has all the tools athletically – great arm strength – and she’s worked tirelessly to get better at the plate.”
Two freshmen also have the chance to earn playing time and make an impact within the lineup immediately. And each comes from strong softball bloodlines.
Sam Puzey is the younger sister of Brittany and she comes to Nevada after a strong prep career at Reno High School. Her father played baseball at Nevada and in the minor leagues and her mother also played softball at Nevada.
Lauren Lastrapes comes from one of the most notable softball families around. Her oldest sister, Dominique, was an All-American at Washington and currently coaches at UC Davis while another sister, Brittany, is an All-American at Arizona.
“Sam is immensely talented as she probably has the best pure power on the team and the best arm strength on the team,” Meuchel said. “She also has great speed. She is just a gifted athlete. I’m excited to see what she’ll bring to our team on a daily basis. I don’t like to compare players but if you compared Brittany and Sam Puzey, I’d say that Sam might be a better athlete than Brittany was but Brittany had a competitiveness that was unmatched. We’re interested to see how Sam competes on a daily basis.
“Lauren comes from one of the best softball families on the West Coast. Our expectation from her is to drive in runs and hit a lot of home runs during the course of her career. Nobody is more dedicated in the cage than Lauren. She is the strongest player we have ever had. We’ll put her somewhere in the middle of the lineup and let her do some damage,” Meuchel said.
As has been a staple of Nevada softball, the Wolf Pack will play a challenging non-conference slate before beginning WAC play. The schedule starts off at the Kajikawa Classic in Arizona and continues the following weekend at the Stanford Nike Invitational. Nevada will then come home for its own Wolf Pack Classic the last weekend of February before two more road tournaments – at The Preview in Oklahoma and at the Capital Classic in Sacramento Calif. The Preview event features games against Louisville and Oklahoma State at the ASA Half-of-Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City as well as games at Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.
“We’ll see how we match up right away,” Meuchel said. “After the first two weekends, I think we will have a pretty good indication where we are at because of the caliber of the competition we are playing. I am truly excited about the opportunity to play at the three venues in Oklahoma against Top-25 caliber teams.”
The home slate is the largest in history as Nevada will play 22 games at Hixson Park, where the team is 38-5 since the facility opened in 2007. That includes home WAC series against Fresno State, San Jose State, Hawai`i and Boise State.
“This is more home games than we have ever had before and I know our team is excited for that,” Meuchel said. “And we need that home-field advantage, especially in the WAC. It’s clear that the WAC is going to be a multiple-bid league in the NCAA Tournament again. The depth of the conference is better and the league race is going to be a dogfight, day-in and day-out.