The Utah softball team welcomes back four starting infielders for the 2012 season.
Jan. 30, 2012
With the first pitch of the 2012 Utah softball campaign 11 days away, utahutes.com preps fans for the inaugural Pac-12 Conference season with a breakdown of the Ute roster as well as a look at the upcoming schedule. This is the first in a five-part series about the student-athletes Utah has at each position heading into the season as well as the competition they will face.
Monday, Jan. 30: Infield
Tuesday, Jan. 31: Outfield
Wednesday, Feb. 1: Catchers
Thursday, Feb. 2: Pitchers
Friday, Feb. 3: Utilities/Designated Players/Schedule
Utes Begin First Pac-12 Campaign
Much like every other team in the University of Utah athletic department, the Ute softball team's 2012 season will be measured by how well they adjust to the new challenges that await in the Pac-12 Conference.
"Everything that we've ever known or done gets to step up a notch," Utah head coach Amy Hogue said. "But that's not because of the move to the Pac-12, that's what we do here every year."
Utah finished third in the Mountain West Conference last season and had a shot at the conference title heading into the final day of the regular season. The Utes led the MWC with a .980 fielding percentage during league play and only committed six errors against MWC foes, while sporting the third-lowest overall ERA (3.76).
"Like last year, the strength of the team is going to be pitching and defense," Hogue said. "We return almost the same group and we were the leaders in the MWC in defense last year. I'd take our pitching and defense against anyone. That's what we do best."
The Utes thrived in low-scoring affairs last season as they went 25-2 when they were able to limit their opponents to three runs or less.
"Last year, we won all but two of those games when we kept our opponent under four runs, and this year I hope that doesn't change one bit," Hogue said. "We lost some key hitters, so we're excited to see who's going to step up and get those timely hits for us. We're built around pitching and defense, so when we get those timely hits it should win us some ballgames."
The Utes are fortunate enough to have their entire starting infield return for the 2012 campaign.
"It is such a nice feeling to have our entire starting infield back," Hogue said. "We led the MWC in fielding percentage last season and our infielders are the biggest reason for that. The way our pitching staff sets up hitters, our infielders are the busiest on the field."
Going around the horn starting from left to right, senior Whitney Holm returns for her fourth year as Utah's starting third baseman. Holm was selected to the 2011 All-MWC squad after hitting a team-high nine home runs last season and has now hit 28 over her career. She needs just four more to tie Niki Hayhurst (32 from 2000-03) for fifth place in school history.
"[Holm] will be our everyday third baseman," Hogue said. "She'll also be in a key part of our lineup with her power at the plate."
Kelsi Hoopiiaina, a two-year starter at shortstop, teams with fellow junior, Jackie Sweet, who enters her second season as Utah's starting second baseman, to form a record-breaking double-play combination for the Utes.
"[Hoopiiaina] will play short," Hogue said. "She has a ton of talent and she's learning how to take on more responsibilities. She's adjusted some things that have made her more of a power threat offensively. Speed-wise, she's in the top five on the team and is great on the bases.
"[Sweet] is our starting second baseman. She's also become our fastest player. She's going to steal some bases for us this year and do a whole lot more things offensively because her game is improving all of the time."
In the other corner spot, 2011 All-MWC and NFCA All-West Region Second Team first baseman Tia Palauni returns for her senior season at first base as Utah's unquestioned vocal leader. Her patience at the plate has been a virtue for the Utes as she set a new school single-season record by drawing 41 walks in 41 games last season. Her 1.0 walk-per-game average was good for fifth in the nation. Palauni has drawn 80 walks throughout her career, which is already tied for fifth in school history. She needs 26 more walks to tie Hayhurst (106 walks from 2000-03) for the school's career record.
"[Palauni] is our best first baseman and she'll be in there every day when healthy," Hogue said. "She's valuable to our lineup."
Sophomore Taylor Austin and junior Katelyn Elliott will serve as the backup for each infield spot and may also be inserted into the Ute lineup as a designated player or pinch hitter. Freshman Marissa Mendenhall will be called upon to play either a corner of the infield or right field and may also appear as the Utes' designated player.
Sr. R/R 5-8 Spanish Fork, Utah Spanish Fork H.S.
Veteran of the infield ... has started 158 games at third base over her first three seasons as a Ute ... 28 career homers, which is four away from tying Niki Hayhurst (2000-03) for fifth in school history ... has driven in 91 career runs ... was among the leaders in extra-base hits in the Mountain West Conference each of the last two seasons.
Sr. R/R 5-9 Taylorsville, Utah Taylorsville H.S.
Vocal leader for the infield ... enters second season as Utah's starting first baseman ... versatile athlete who has also played shortstop and second base ... has started 122 of 135 career games ... displays patience at the plate ... tied for fifth in school history with Molly McLean (1999-2002) at 80 career walks ... needs 26 free passes to tie Niki Hayhurst (2000-03) for school record ... capable of hitting with power ... has 32 career extra-base hits (17 home runs, 10 doubles and five triples) and 62 career RBI.
Jr. R/R 5-4 Spanish Fork, Utah Salt Lake Community College
Will be a primary backup for each spot in the Ute infield ... may also pinch hit or serve as designated player ... aggressive hitter with home run power ... accomplished player from Salt Lake Community College, helping the Bruins to a 61-5 record in 2010 ... only struck out 13 times last year with the Bruins ... first-team all-state and region selection in 2009 at Spanish Fork High School.
Jr. R/R 5-8 Riverton, Utah Riverton H.S.
Entering her third year as Utah starting shortstop and already owns 106 career starts ... teams with second baseman Jackie Sweet as Utah's record-setting double-play combination ... is learning to take on more responsibility as an upperclassman ... added a lot of `pop' to her swing this fall ... will steal a lot of bases this season.
Jr. R/R 5-6 Corona, Calif. UC Santa Barbara
Everyday second baseman ... teams with shortstop Kelsi Hoopiiaina as Utah's record-setting double-play ... came to Utah before last season with experience at the NCAA Division I level after playing at UC Santa Barbara ... made 28 starts in 38 appearances for the Gauchos in 2010 ... was a member of an accomplished high school team that won the CIF Division I title in 2006 and was the runner-up in 2009.
So. R/R 5-6 Bountiful, Utah Bountiful H.S.
Will be the primary backup at both second and third base ... has a great mind for the game ... trustworthy with the ball in her hands on defense ... triple-threat at the plate ... a quite, but extremely competitive player.
Fr. R/R Stansbury Park, Utah Tooele H.S.
Backup for both corners of the infield ... could see time in the outfield as well ... has a lot of power, but tends to hit more on a line gap to gap ... great arm and runs well.