The UNM softball team begins its season today with a doubleheader in the Diamond Tournament at Lobo Field against the University of Mississippi today at noon.
USA Today ranked UNM 38th unofficially in its preseason National Fastpitch Coaches Association, which may provide a boost to the beginning of season, which opens with UNM playing four ranked teams in less than three weeks.
Also participating in the invitational, which runs through Feb. 4. are the University of Kansas, Colorado State University and 14th-ranked California State University at Fullerton.
Cal-State Fullerton poses the toughest challenge for the Lobos, Coach Susan Craig said, because the match-up is even and should make for a good battle.
The first two months of the season consist of all non-conference games in order to prepare the team for the Mountain West Conference season. The last time the Lobos won the conference championship was in 1983, and Craig, who is in her 25th year as UNM head coach said she hopes that this will be their year.
“I think that we have a strong enough schedule that if we beat some teams it will help us,” she said.
Last season, the team finished with a 38-18 record. They came up short in the conference tournament, finishing second to the University of Utah. This year, the team is aiming for a conference crown, Craig said.
“Our goal is to win the conference and go to nationals (NCAA Championships),” Craig said.
The top eight teams at the NCAA first round advance to the finals in Oklahoma City, Okla., for the NCAA College World Series in May.
Craig said she is looking forward to the season and feels that her team is strong in the infield and outfield.
“We have three very sound pitchers, including Kathy Moore, who is a legitimate All-American candidate,” she said. “She is also a good hitter.”
Moore, a senior, had a team-best .601 slugging percentage last season. As a power hitter, she has the ability to knock it out of the park every time up to the plate, Craig said. She will bat in the clean-up position.
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Moore said she feels the freshman pitchers can only add strength to the position.
“We have more talent at pitcher and more depth this season,” Moore said. “We have a variety of different types.”
Left-handed freshman Haley Punter, who was recently named to her native Australian National Team and freshman Amy Dumas will see plenty of time on the mound, Craig said.
Freshman Kim Korsak is expected to spend a lot of time at the catching position and will start there for today’s game, Craig said.
“All the first year players are going to see playing time and contribute a great deal,” she said.
The offense is stronger this year, with power hitters such as Moore and Keene in the lineup, Craig said.
First-year transfer, Michelle Carter, from Highlands College in Highlands, Kan., is offensively strong and important to the hitting lineup at the fifth spot, Craig said. Carter will start at third base for the Lobos.
Sophomore Elena Cranmer will start at first base. Cranmer had a .225 batting average in her freshman season and will bat eighth. Junior Brooke Chaffee starts at second and bats sixth in the lineup, bringing a .304 average from last season.
Senior co-captain Marianna Fenelli will anchor the infield at shortstop. Fenelli has started every game since becoming a Lobo. She will be looked to as a leader both on and off the field, Craig said. Fenelli is third in the batting order and is the school’s leader for runs scored with 119.
Back-up shortstop freshman Sabrina Sandberg will see playing time to get her ready for her role as a starter when Fenelli graduates this spring, Craig said.
“On defense we should be very strong, it was one of our strong suits last year,” she said. “We have a terrific outfield with a lot of speed and good arms.”
Senior Krissy Keene starts in left field and is hidden ninth in the batting order where they can exploit her slugging power, Craig said. Keene finished last season with a .347 batting average. Joining Keene in the outfield are sophomore Kelly Glass at center field, a base-stealing threat with 49 in her career, and junior Cayley Warner, who will occupy right field in her first season as a starter.
Craig said if the team has a weakness, it is that the team does not have a lot of speedy pinch runners coming off the bench, but as a whole, the team is very tough, she said.
“I am very proud of this team and I think that they have worked very hard,” she said. “We will need every bit of that toughness to achieve our goals.”
Fenelli said that the chemistry is better than in years past.
“That’s what makes us so good, is that we are friends off the field,” she said. “We can trust each other.”
The Lobos will also play in the San Diego State Tournament on Feb.16-18, where three ranked teams await the Lobos, including ninth-ranked Fresno State University, 15th-ranked Stanford University and 22nd-ranked Long Beach State University. UNM’s tough schedule should test and prepare the Lobos for conference play, Craig said.
Utah is picked to win the Mountain West this season and UNM is aiming to change the predicted outcome.
“We should have beat them last year,” said Kathy Moore. “This season I want to go out with a bang.”