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The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

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Miracle MWC champs search for another title

Last spring, as huge underdogs, the Utes won the Mountain West Conference softball tournament after the regular season.

The success triggered all kinds of positive media coverage and confidence for the upcoming season, but it also helped gloss over one of the most difficult regular seasons since head coach Mona Stevens arrived more than seven years ago.

The spring of 2004 was unkind to the Utes, as injuries and an incredibly tough schedule wore the team out before it ever made it to its conference schedule. After a promising 4-1 start to the season, the utter brutality of the team’s schedule began to hit home. Facing an astounding 13 teams ranked in the top 25 during their nonconference schedule, the Utes failed to score a single victory against any of them.

At one point, the Utes lost 10 games in a row. During that span, the team scored an average of one run per game, while their opponents averaged more than six runs per game. With an extraordinarily high team ERA, the Utes were having problems, both with putting up runs and with defense.

The main problem, according to Stevens, was the difficulty of the team’s schedule.

“We played an incredibly difficult schedule at the beginning of the season, but we were right there in every game, for the most part,” Stevens said. “We were right there knocking on the door, but we had so many losses handed to us early that it became sort of self-defeating and it really affected our confidence.”

Stevens admitted that she made a mistake last year by scheduling too many difficult opponents without giving the Utes any chance to breathe. She remains resolute, however, in her conviction that playing good teams early helps win championships.

“I still believe in a strong schedule, but I need to balance it a little better,” Stevens said. “We’ve been in the final game of the Mountain West Conference Championships three of the last five years, and we’ve won every time we’ve been there.”

Stevens attributes much of her past success in the postseason to the fact that her team always plays a difficult nonconference schedule, but she plans to take things easier this year to help give her team confidence going into the conference season.

More concerned with team pitching than with the team’s lack of hitting, Stevens argued that pitching would be the critical factor in this year’s potential for success.

“We did struggle through the regular season last year,” Stevens said. “One of the biggest reasons was that our pitching staff was so young. We had one senior pitcher, but the people who did the bulk of the pitching, especially at the end of the year, were all young-sophomores and freshmen.”

One of those youngsters, junior pitcher Brianna Gourdin, made a massive turnaround midway through the spring season as she finally got healthy enough to pitch her best. Gourdin finished the year with 18 wins, and in three of her final performances she threw a three-hitter, a four-hitter and a one-hitter while allowing just one earned run between all three games. It just so happens that the one earned run came in the NCAA regional tournament against Stanford, one of the top-ranked teams in the country.

Stevens is excited about her pitching corps for this coming season, and with a new recruit to fill any holes, next year’s pitching staff should be rock-solid.

“We need better pitching than we got last year, and at the end of the year it was getting a lot better, but the team’s ERA was still higher than it should have been,” Stevens said. “This year we are looking for Brianna Gourdin to have a big year, and we just got another really good pitcher named Lindsey Nielsen from Salt Lake Community College, which will give us four starting pitchers for next year-so we should be fine in that category.”

“How well they do when they take the mound and how focused they remain is yet to be determined,” Stevens said of her pitching staff. “But they are an absolute key to our success next year.”

The major difference for this year’s squad will be overall team speed. Stevens is preparing to make several changes to the starting lineup and defensive assignments, all to get faster as a team.

“Defensively, there will be some changes in the outfield,” Stevens said. “I can’t say exactly who will be playing in what position, but I can say that the main difference between last year’s team and this year’s team is speed. We are going to have a lot of the same power we had before, but this year we are adding the element of speed.”

It’s not surprising that Stevens would be interested in getting faster, considering that a blooper that an outfielder could not get to for lack of speed was the difference in the Stanford game at the NCAA regional playoff.

The Utes lost that game by a margin of 1-0 while the Cardinal advanced to the national tournament.

“The short-term goal is to get this team back to a consistent performance with a lot of confidence behind it,” Stevens said. “We will focus on getting back to a day-to-day win-loss record where we are winning more than we are losing. This team has the talent to do what we did at the end of last season all year long, and just getting that feel back will be important.”

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