The UMBC Softball program starts a new era under the guidance of first-year head coach Heather Gelbard when they travel to Nashville to play in the Belmont Winter Fest Tournament this weekend.
Gelbard replaced Joe French, who retired in May after guiding the Retrievers for 15 seasons and compiling a record of 435-397-1 (.523 winning percentage) at UMBC and a mark of 649-506-1 (56.2%) in 23 seasons overall.
UMBC will play Belmont this Friday at 5 p.m. before taking on UMKC and Belmont again onSaturday. The Retrievers wrap up the weekend with a rematch with UMKC on Sunday.
Belmont went 19-35 last season and also have a first-year head coach in Brian Levin.
UMKC went 24-26 in 2016, including a 10-5 record in the WAC.
The most important thing for Gelbard is that the team practices and plays every game with the same intensity, regardless of it's a conference or non-conference match-up.
"We're going out there to play to the best of our abilities," she said. "It doesn't matter if it's practice, it doesn't matter if it's games. We're going out there to push ourselves and to play to the best of our abilities. Every game matters."
Despite a roster full of upperclassmen, Gelbard sees everyone on the team as a leader.
"I have 21 team captains," she said. "When I look at our team, I don't necessarily look at juniors, seniors, freshman, sophomores, any of that. It's what do they bring to the table. And certainly all of them bring skills and tools to the table, certainly some of the older players will have more experience."
Gelbard said she still expects the younger players to contribute in various ways.
"[We think that] a freshman [can] come in playing at a high level and have just as much experience and be able to provide just as much...'leadership'," Gelbard said. "So we're looking for leadership from everybody, and we're looking for production from everybody. Everybody on our roster has a role. Otherwise they wouldn't be on our roster."
When Gelbard was hired in mid-July to be the sixth head coach in UMBC Softball history she stated that she's "a coach that believes that pitching and defense come first." Well, the Retrievers will be extremely deep in the circle this season, anchored by four upperclassmen, including three seniors.
"We have a lot of depth. I think one of our advantages is that we're very deep on the mound," said Gelbard. "We have three senior pitchers and a nice blend of youth. And I think the fun part of season is going to be [seeing] who steps up. I think on any given day, we have four or five kids that could be an ace, and obviously we'll try to use their strengths to blend them together."
One of the keys for Gelbard was bringing in a good pitching coach, which she believes she did in hiring Carla Shepherd. Shepherd spent last season working with the pitching staff at Shepherd (WV) University where she helped guide the team to an impressive 14-game improvement after winning only 20 games in the year prior to her arrival.
In her lone season with Rams, Shepherd guided the pitchers to a 2.44 ERA, substantially lower than the 4.53 from the previous campaign. The pitching staff allowed only six home runs all season after permitting 39 in 2015. They tossed eight shutouts, double from the previous year, and struck out 220 batters (up from 160 in 2015).
"I love watching her work with the pitchers, and I think she has a great relationship with all of them," said Gelbard. "I think she's working with them in a way where she is getting enough time individually with all of them to learn their strengths and their weaknesses, and learn how to motivate each one of them and talk to each player. I think that has been a big key and obviously she's worked with them a lot on their fundamentals. All of them look very fundamentally sound and from there we can build and make sure that they are hitting their spots and their pitches are breaking where we need them to."
Record-setting lefty Jessica Holte (career 2.99 ERA) returns for her final campaign on Hilltop Circle. The Ashland, Va native's 45 wins are the third-most in program history and she ranks in the top 10 in several other career categories. Last season, Holte finished ranked in the top 10 of the America East in 18 different categories.
Fellow seniors Nicole Casagrand (ranked second in the America East in walks (13) and fifth in runs allowed (58)) and Kelly Lane (pitched the only perfect game in program history-- in 2014) will also pitch..
"With Jess Holte, what she's done in her career here speaks for herself." said Gelbard. "We've also seen significant development from Nicole and Kelly."
Junior Kim Puccio is coming off her best season. The Sparta, N.J. native went 8-6 with a 3.13 ERA in 2016, including a complete-game shutout of Hartford in the America East tournament. Puccio was named America East Pitcher of the Week twice last season and had 10 complete games in 13 starts. Freshmen Evvie Buehlman and Valerie Hammett will also get some pitching time this season.
"Puccio looks to be good, she's healthy again-- which was a big concern for her last year," said Gelbard. "Our two freshman, Evvie and Val, don't have as much experience, but they both have shown some different things throughout fall that make us excited for both of their potentials."
"I think great catchers are really the backbone of a team," said Gelbard. "I think our pitching staff will be very strong this year, and I think the key to their success will be our backstops."
Senior Kinsey Shifflett and sophomores Chelsie Delperuto and Jenna Stupey will see the bulk of the playing time behind the plate. The trio has their own individual strengths that can help the team in a variety of ways.
"Each has a little bit different strengths," Gelbard said. "Chelsie is really explosive and blocks the ball real well. Kinsey does a really great job receiving the ball, and Jenna probably has the best arm of them all so they all have their own niche. We've seen a lot of great development from them this fall as well and I expect that to continue. They have a great relationship with their pitching staff which is really, really important."
Senior third baseman Kaelin Jackson will be the cornerstone of the Retriever infield. The Export, Pa. native had a magnificent 2016, finishing with career-bests in home runs (eight), RBI (37), hits (43), doubles (14), runs (29) and slugging percentage (.542). Jackson also had a career year in the field as well, finishing with 106 assists and being a part of four double-plays. Stupey is also expected to see time at third in 2017.
Junior Carly Lesko saw a bulk of the action at first base last season and posted some big power numbers. The New Milford, N.J. native blasted a team-best 11 home runs and also led UMBC with 38 RBI. In the field, Lesko led the conference in putouts with 389 and had a .985 fielding percentage. Gelbard also expects classmate Toni Santonastasso and freshman Kennedy Lamb to see time at first.
"There's been a lot of great competition at first base as well," Gelbard said. "Carly and Toni have really both shown a lot, and Kennedy has been filling in nicely as a freshman as well. She was hurt for a little bit of the fall so I don't think we've seen as much of her as we would have liked. But she's really blossomed. [Jackson] is doing a nice job at third base, but Jenna Stupey also looks really, really good as well."
In the middle of the infield, junior Tori Alexander will make the move from center field, where she played her first two seasons, to shortstop. Senior Jaclyn Buckley will continue to play at second base after a strong defensive season there (116 putouts, 102 assists, .940 fielding percentage) in 2016. Gelbard also expects freshman Maddie Daigneau to see time in the infield.
"We did pull Tori back into the middle infield, as we are a little thin on infield and thin on middle infield," the coach said. "We have just Tori, Maddie, who is a freshman, and Jaclyn. So you know having shortstop and second basemen, two middle field positions, and three people, we're very thin and I honestly expect all of them to see some time in different positions. It's a long season; people get beat up and injured, and I fully expect our middle infield to not miss a beat no matter who really is in there. They each have some individual qualities that make them capable of doing the job."
"[Morgan]'s worked really hard," Gelbard said. "She has great speed and great arm strength. Haley DeLany is has really stepped up, and made some incredible jumps this year. She's also got good arm strength and good speed. She's kind of developed some command of the outfield. I kind of see either Haley or Morgan competing for center field. You know it's really a flexible outfield in that a lot of these kids can play right or left or center, which is nice."
Gelbard also expects to see Lane play in the outfield in addition to pitching.
"Kelly Lane has done a nice job when she's pitching, and it seems like everytime she's in the outfield she catches everything," Gelbard said. "She's done a nice job out there."
"Shayna has been improving all fall and Mallory is somebody that's just a real hard worker, really dedicated," the coach said. "She's got heart. They've all done a nice job. It's making my job as a coach difficult trying to figure out how the pieces all fit together."
Where the real flexibility and depth comes from, according to Gelbard, is that several of the infielders can also play in the outfield.
"It's gives us a ton of flexibility,' she said. "It makes my job hard which I like. [On] any given day you could put Tori out there. Again, she's really shown herself well in the infield so far, but certainly she was a tremendous center fielder before. Toni has some outfield experience in her past. She had a strong bat throughout the fall she could go out there. Kennedy played some outfield in travel ball. Jaclyn's played outfield [before], in her freshman year here, so she could potentially get out there."