The University of New Mexico softball team opens the season Friday morning at 9:15 a.m. against No. 15/16 University of Utah and at 11:45 a.m. against Saint Mary’s College of California in the first two games of Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Arizona.
The Classic will feature 28 teams with the Lobos playing a total of five games over three days. On Saturday, the Lobos will face off against Oklahoma State at 7:30 p.m.. Challenging games against No. 3 Oregon and No. 7 Arizona at 11:30 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. on Sunday will wrap up the weekend.
Friday marks new coach Paula Congleton’s first game in charge of her alma mater after taking over for Erika Beach last June. Congleton came to UNM from Santa Barbara Community College, where she went 354-322 in 19 years. She was a three time All-American at first base during her playing career at New Mexico.
The Lobos return 10 letter winners from last year’s team, which went 20-30 overall. Offensively, junior catcher Chelsea Johnson is the top returner, finishing third on last year’s team with a .369 batting average and leading the team with seven home runs. In the circle, Krissy Fortner lead all Lobo pitchers last season with a 3.60 earned run average (ERA), returns to anchor the staff.
Last season, Utah went 37-16, finished ranked No. 14 in the season and the team made its third straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament, advancing to the NCAA Super Regionals. The Utes are lead by sophomore outfielder Alyssa Barrera who was a finalist for the 2017 Schutt Sports National Freshman of the Year Award and this year was named to USA Softball’s Collegiate Player of the Year watch list.
Next up for the Lobos is Saint Mary’s. Last year, the Gaels finished 17-31 and 3-12 in conference. Leading the way is sophomore Niki Alexander, a First Team All-WCC selection last season, she had a .355 batting average and .452 on base percentage. On the mound, senior Katlyn Whitt headlines the rotation. Last year she finished with a 2.57 ERA and recorded seven complete games.
On Saturday, the Lobos will face Oklahoma State, a program that was named one of Flo Softball’s teams to watch in the tournament. Senior Vanessa Shippy holds the program record in on base percentage at .502 and leads a group of 13 returners from last year’s team, which finished 38-25.
Sunday’s matchups pit the Lobos against two of the top teams in the country. The Oregon Ducks are coming off of a 54-8 season and a trip to the Women’s College World Series last year. They return all three starters from last year’s pitching staff, which ranked fifth in the nation with an ERA of 1.41. Left fielder Alexis Mack will spearhead an explosive offense after leading the team with a .424 batting average last season.
Arizona will enter the contest ranked seventh in the country. The Wildcats are coming off of a 2017 season in which they won the Pac-12 and finished with a 52-9 record. Arizona added the sixth ranked recruiting class in the country according to Flo Softball in addition to returning six starters from last year’s squad. Four Wildcats, senior Aleah Craighton, sophomore Jessie Harper, junior Taylor McQuillin and sophomore Dejah Mulipola were named to the USA Softball Player of the Year Top 50 Watch list.
Cameron Goeldner is a sports beat reporter and photographer for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covers men’s soccer and softball but also contributes content for baseball, basketball, football and track and field. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @goeldfinger.