To say that the Utah softball team is undergoing a metamorphosis in 1998 would be an understatement. Gone from last years team are eight seniors and 11 letterwinners. The seniors, in particular, played a large role in the Utes going 44-18 overall, placing third in the Western Athletic Conference, finishing the regular season ranked 14th in the nation and advancing to the NCAA Tournament.
Yet, while unfamiliar names may appear up and down this years roster, the expectations for the Utes in 1998 remain high. After all, Utah is still Utah: A program that has played in the NCAA Tournament five times in the last seven years and advanced to the College World Series twice in the 90s.
"Were a young team with a lot of new faces, but we have a very talented group," says second-year head coach Mona Stevens. "This team has already developed good chemistry, and they communicate very well with each other. I think our cohesiveness will help us get through the growing pains."
With the large number of new players, Stevens will be afforded the opportunity to finally put her own signature on the program; and that can only mean good things for Utah softball. Stevens, a nationally renowned coach for years, was recently selected as one of the nine coaches that will work with the USA Softball National Team through the 2000 Summer Olympics.
"I always feel like a team should be a reflection of its coach," explains Stevens. "With so many veteran players back last year, I didnt want to overwhelm them with my personal routine and all of my philosophies. And, we were obviously very successful by doing that. But now the staff and I can really instill more of our philosophies and techniques on this team. Once that takes place, we will feel more comfortable with letting go of the reigns and just letting this team play."
Breaking down the team by position, three of the four day-to-day starters return in the outfield, led by all-everything senior right fielder Sandy Rhea. Only one starter returns in the infield, but its a good one in sophomore first baseman Jessie Ziese. The Utes also must replace their entire battery with three pitchers entirely new to the program, a sophomore catcher who has yet to start a single game behind the plate in Sunny Smith and two other freshman catchers.
"Our pitchers are young, but we have three kids who are very experienced for their age," says Stevens. "I think our pitching staff is capable of holding its own. Our infield will also have new people at three positions, but they are all very talented and play aggressive defense. Our outfield is as solid as a rock."
To help compensate for a new pitching staff and infield, Utahs offense should be able to score runs in abundance this season. "We have a very potent line-up," raves Stevens. "I wouldnt want to pitch to us. There isnt a weak link, one through nine. We have a nice blend of power and speed."
Solid from left to right, the most experienced and perhaps talented group of players on this years team is in the outfield. The quartet is led by co-captains Rhea and Jenny Monson.
Rhea was a first-team All-American in 97, and has been named first-team all-West Region and all-WAC the past two years. With 96 career stolen bases, Rhea has already laid claim to the Utah and WAC career marks. The South Jordan, Utah, native ranked 31st in the nation with a .419 batting average and 19th with 46 stolen bases-a school and conference single-season record-last season.
"We can all sit around and talk about how gifted she is," says Stevens. "The bottom line is that shes a very powerful athlete who is blessed with a rare combination of both speed and strength, and her work ethic is an inspiration to this team."
Monson, a sophomore, started slowly last season after sitting out 1996 as a redshirt. However, she picked up her offensive production the last two months to hit .316, the sixth-best batting average on the team.
"With her offense coming around like it did last year, she became a complete player," expounds Stevens. "And defensively, we get excited when we see teams try to run on her arm because we know its likely that shes going to throw them out."
Lisa Hashimoto also came around to put up big numbers the second part of last year. Hashimoto played in 59 games, hit .292 overall and improved her average to .346 in WAC games. Another player blessed with great speed, Hashimoto was successful on 11-of-12 stolen base attempts last year. The lefty slapper laid down a team-best 15 sacrifice hits in 97, but also has the ability to swing away.
Amberly Johnson is the newcomer of the group. A native of Sandy, Utah, Johnson is aggressive, has a great arm and reads the ball very well off the bat. Johnson is also the complete offensive threat at the plate.
"One of my goals for the outfield this year is to play more aggressively and take some risks," says Stevens. "(Assistant coach) Angie (Jacobs) has done a nice job of working with them, and they are a very solid group."
Ziese may be just a sophomore, but "what a sophomore she is," boasts Stevens. "She has one of the best gloves I have ever seen in the game. She is extremely gifted. Jessie is also someone that I would want at the plate with the game on the line. Shes a gamer, and she proved that last year when she was in position numerous times to win the game for us. Its an understatement to say that Im glad to have her for three more years."
Sandy, Utah, native Nicole Wilkinson returns to her home state after playing one year at Louisiana State and will take over at shortstop. "Once in a while a gift will walk through your door," says Stevens. "Nicole was that gift to us. We had a question mark at shortstop until she came along, and now we have a very good one."
Wilkinson, a very fluid player, combines great instincts with a solid arm and good lateral movement and speed. "Shes pretty to watch," says Stevens.
Carrie Kosderka, a freshman from Roseburg, Ore., will play at either second or third base. Her more natural position is second, where she will play when freshman Stacey Farnworth is in the line-up at third. When Farnworth moves behind the plate, Kosderka will slide over to the hot corner.
Kosderka possesses some of the best hands and quickest feet on the team. "Everyone whos seen her play says that theyve never seen anyone with more passion for the game. She begs for the ball to be hit to her," says Stevens.
When Kosderka moves over to third base, Stacy Holmes will be inserted into the line-up at second. Holmes, who played at Ricks Junior College last year, gives Utah a solid glove and another lefty slapper at the plate.
Kellie Culligan, the only other senior on the roster besides Rhea, will back up Ziese at first base and contribute as a pinch hitter. "Kellie has improved so much since last season, and shes now one of our most powerful hitters," says Stevens.
Pitchers and Catchers
The biggest question mark surrounding this years team is the pitching staff. None of the three pitchers that threw last year remain on the roster; and with the departures of Ali Andrus-Sagas and Monica Jimenez, Utah lost arguably the best tandem of arms in school history. Most notably, Andrus-Sagas was the U.s all-time leader in wins and strikeouts, while Jimenez ranks in the top five in both categories.
All three of Utahs new pitchers have different styles, which gives Stevens some varying looks to throw at opposing hitters.
Sarah Farnworth, a cousin to Stacey Farnworth, was the 1997 California Senior of the Year and a three-time league MVP. She has a very nice rise ball and two different change-ups. Farnworth also has good pop, very nice up and down movement and exceptional command of her low pitches.
Kristin Arbogast, a freshman from Eugene, Ore., is pushing Farnworth to be the teams top pitcher. Arbogast also has a good change-up. But unlike Farnworth, Arbogast puts side-to-side movement on the ball and throws a good screw ball and curve.
Jamie Wilkes, a junior from Garden Grove, Calif., was the Southern California Junior College Pitcher of the Year last season at Cypress College. Wilkes posted 65 career wins and 39 victories last year-both school records. Says Stevens, "When Jamie is on, her greatest asset is her pinpoint accuracy. I watched good hitters only able to muster a weak ground ball off of her this fall."
Jeanette Herbert, a freshman hurler from West Valley, Utah, will sit out this season as a redshirt.
Smith will take over behind the plate after watching and learning behind two veteran seniors last season. Smith played in 32 games and started 10 as a designated player in 97, hitting .244.
"Sunny hit the ball extremely well in the fall and has home run power," says Stevens. The best defensive catcher on the team, Smith is quick, has a strong arm and is someone who likes to take charge and make decisions-all desirable qualities in a starting catcher.
Stacey Farnworth is competing for playing time at catcher, as well as third base. Farnworths greatest assets behind the plate are her ability to connect with a pitcher and call an aggressive game. She is also a highly competitive player who hit a lot of line drives in the gaps this fall.
The Farnworths have been playing together since they were young kids, and it shows. "Theyve really pushed each other," says Stevens. "When Stacey is catching for Sarah, theres a special chemistry between them that works very well. The have worked routinely against some of the best hitters in the game."
Katie Brewster, a freshman from McMinnville, Ore., will play some at catcher, but could be most useful this season as a designated player. "She might just be the most powerful hitter on the team," states Stevens.
Stevens loves the fact that this is a very team-oriented group. When the players were asked to put down their personal goals this year, most of them penciled in going to the College World Series at the top of the list rather than any personal accomplishments.
"Im a very process-oriented person," says Stevens. "Im more into taking care of the journey and letting things happen. But, looking at the big picture, Id like us to finish in the top three in the WAC, get an NCAA bid and then let these athletes play at their best late in the season."
"I think were going to sneak up on some people this year," concludes Stevens. "Other teams are going to think that just because were young, we wont have the experience to pull together. But this team is filled with players that know how to win. All we need is the opportunity to play. I know theyre going to be an exciting team to watch."