The fourth season of the new era of Wildcat softball gets under way this weekend, with the Weber State set to participate against a prestigious field at the Red Desert Classic.
The Wildcats will throw their first pitch at 11 a.m. today against Loyola Marymount at St. George's Canyon's Complex. Weber State will also take on Oklahoma State at 1:30 p.m., and then will face Nevada and Arkansas on Saturday, before wrapping up the tournament against former Pacific Coast Softball Conference Mountain Division rival Seattle on Sunday.
"We are ready to see how far we've come," Weber State coach Tina Johnson said. "We're ready to see different pitchers and be challenged on defense. The infielders and pitchers will be the ones that have the biggest adjustment because we haven't been on dirt."
One of the Wildcats preseason challenges, much like any team in a cold weather winter area, is getting outdoors for practice prior to the start of the season. Since practice began in early January, Weber State has been forced to spend nearly all of its practice time indoors.
The sun, temperature, wind, grass and dirt are always changing from inning to inning," Johnson said. "I'm sure we'll boot a few balls, but was long as we let it go, we'll be fine. We need to adjust quickly to the game-day conditions. We'll be happy to be on a real field, which is all that matters at this point."
Weber State is coming off a 21-win season that saw the Wildcats finish in second place in the Pacific Coast Softball Conference's Mountain Division. WSU's season was record-breaking in many ways as the team set 22 new team or individual single season and career records during the 2012 campaign.
Weber State will return seven letterwinners, while welcoming 12 new players to the team this year. Among those returning are senior outfielder London Clarke, the first four-year member of the team for Johnson, along with junior shortstop Brooke Silva and right-handed pitcher/infielder Morgan Allaband.
"(I expect) leadership, focus on team, and learning the game (from our returning players)," Johnson said. "To be successful, they need to really lead on focus on how the team is doing. This will allow them to play with less pressure and be more successful."
Silva hit .317 and was one of five Wildcats - the only one returning - to record at least 50 hits last season. She also had 31 RBIs, and 18 extra base hits.
Sophomore catcher Janel Cunningham is coming off a strong freshman season as she recorded 44 hits with a .303 batting average and nine home runs, which was the second most on the team.
Sophomore infielder Cydnee Clarke had .35 hits, the majority of which came during conference play, and record nine doubles and two home runs with a .297 batting average.
Allaband had a 6.02 ERA with 79 strikeouts in 100 innings pitched across 27 appearances as a freshman last year.
"Losing (senior right hander) Sarah (Clark to graduation) was a big loss for us, but we've moved on by adding two junior college pitches. Morgan is back with a year of experience under her belt," Johnson said. "She has more confidence this spring and she is more prepared mentally and physically for our season. Both Jasmine (Ioane) and Kylee (Colvin) have college pitching experience. I feel we are in better shape than we have been with pitching. I see all three of our pitchers doing a great job.
"I'm not big on having a number one pitcher because we expect all our pitchers to throw like our ace."
Colvin, a native of Farr West, joins Weber State out of Salt Lake Community College, while Ioane comes to the Wildcats from Central Arizona College.
While the Wildcats will clearly be younger than last season, Johnson feels like this team will continued to forward progress seen during her first three season.
"We need time to get it right at the plate," Johnson said. "I'm encouraged by the potential power we have, but it's all about pitch selection. We have the hitters, if they pick the right pitches to swing at and the right ones to let go.
"We have more infield depth, as well depth with our pitchers and catchers," Johnson added. "We need the rookies to step up right away defensively. Right now they are learning about controlling the speed of the game. They make adjustments well, but they also need to relax and just take what the game gives them."
Weber State was recently picked fifth in the inaugural Big Sky Conference preseason coaches poll, but the Wildcats have their sights set on making a postseason appearance. With the addition of North Dakota and Southern Utah to the fold this year, the Big Sky now sponsors softball with seven members currently fielding a team. The top four finishers will advance to the first-ever Big Sky softball tournament in early May.
"We want to improve our conference and overall record, but we are really shooting for one of the four spots at the conference tournament," Johnson said. "It would be great to keep improving and get another 5-8 wins. We want those wins during conference so that we secure a playoff spot."
Weber State will face four straight tournament weekends adding up to 19 games before making its home debut against in-state rival Utah State on March 13 at Wildcat Softball Field.