Thursday, January 17, 2013

2013 PREVIEW: Nevada Wolf Pack

The Nevada Wolf Pack head into their first season as a Mountain West softball member with some very high hopes.

With an abundance of talent returning to the squad, those high hopes for Coach Matt Meuchel and company appear warranted.  Nevada has more starters back than any other MW team, and the Wolf Pack could be the team most likely for a dramatic turnaround from the 2012 season.

And that's not to say the 2012 campaign was a bad one.  Sure, the overall record doesn't look great on paper (21-36 overall), but the Pack finished 9-12 in a demanding Western Athletic Conference.

The WAC last year consisted of heavyweights Hawai'i, BYU and Fresno State, meaning the league boasted a Top 15-ranked team that was two years removed from a Women's College World Series berth, a 3-time defending conference champion looking for an 8th straight NCAA Tournament appearance, and a former NCAA champion with 12 WCWS appearances under its belt, looking for a 31st straight NCAA Tournament bid.

All three of the aforementioned teams (Hawai'i, BYU, and Fresno State) are gone from the WAC this year, along with Nevada.  And all three are this year projected to win their respective new conferences, according to College Sports Madness in its preseason projections.

For Nevada to finish with nine wins in a league as strong as the WAC was in 2012 is an accomplishment in itself.  The Wolf Pack took a game from both Fresno State and Hawai'i in conference play before faltering down the stretch.

Nevada enters 2013 on a 5-game losing streak after being swept in three games by BYU in the final series of the regular season, and then going a disappointing 0-2 in the WAC postseason tournament, where it was bounced early.  The Wolf Pack squandered leads late in both games they lost at the WAC tourney to end the year.

But it's a new year and a new conference.  And the future looks bright with a roster dominated by upperclassmen and veteran players.  Nevada returns all seven of its top hitters in terms of batting average from last season, and features a roster where more than half of the team are seniors and juniors.

And those players are experienced.  Eight position players who started the Pack's final game of the season a year ago are back.  The lone player missing is pitcher/infielder Emily Seidel, a freshman a year ago, who made five pitching starts and 25 starts overall.  Seidel started at third base for Nevada in its season-ending loss to Louisiana Tech.

Not to worry.  Returning to the squad after a year that saw her miss all of 2012 with injury is one of the Pack's most feared hitters -- third baseman Erin Jones.  A second team All-WAC pick as a sophomore in 2011, Jones led Nevada with a .362 average that season.

Junior shortstop Karley Hopkins, senior first baseman Lauren Lastrapes and junior second baseman Caylin Campbell all return.  Hopkins led the Pack with a .333 batting average in 2012 with Lastrapes the only other member of the team batting over .300 (.302).  A team without a whole lot of power at the plate last season, Nevada hit just 30 home runs.  Lastrapes was tied for the team lead with six.

The outfield appears set as well.  Center fielder Sara Parsons (.299), left fielder Chelsea Barilli (.273) and right fielder Megan Fincher (.256) all return.  The trio combined for 114 hits and 22 stolen bases on the year.  Also back:  Sam Puzey (.251), Chelsea Venable (.210) and Ashley Butera (.279).  As a freshman last season, Butera tied Lastrapes for the team lead in HR with six, and her .500 slugging percentage led Nevada.

In the circle, the Wolf Pack appear set as well.  Junior right-hander Karlyn Jones returns after leading the team in earned-run average (3.58).  A quick worker who continually frustrates opponents, Jones pitched better than her 9-6 record might indicate.  Her strikeout-to-walk ratio is one of the best in the country and she allowed just nine walks in 107.2 innings last season.  At one point, she posted eight straight wins (going nearly two full months without a loss), and her three saves and two shutouts paced the team.  Jones is one of the pitchers to watch in the Mountain West in 2013.

Northern Illinois sophomore transfer Megan Dortch (a Reno native) will begin her first year with the Pack after leading the Huskies in wins, ERA and complete games a year ago.  Dortch went 11-13 with a 3.28 ERA for NIU, which plays in the Mid-American Conference.  In MAC play only, she finished 2-2 with a 5.60 ERA.  In her best win of the season, Dortch limited Mountain West member Boise State to five hits in a complete-game, 5-1 win for NIU over the Broncos and pitcher Lela Work.

Aside from the loss of Seidel, there is just one major loss:  Pitcher Mallary Darby, a 4-year mainstay for Nevada.  The first pitcher in school history to finish with double-digit wins for four consecutive seasons, Darby led the Pack in numerous pitching categories over her career. Her 28 starts last season were nearly double any other pitcher on the staff, and her 16 complete games were four times more than any other teammate. Darby tossed at least one no-hitter in three different seasons as a collegian, and her shutout of then-No. 14 Hawai'i last year was Nevada's best win.

One thing to watch is how Jones, Dortch and fellow pitchers Ariel Craig and Bailey Brewer handle the pitching spotlight.  For years, it was Darby who started nearly every big game on the schedule (Darby started both of Nevada's WAC Tournament games in 2012).

A 5-member freshman class, comprised of mostly players who could see time in the infield, may struggle to see much action with such an upperclassman-filled lineup.

After three straight losing seasons, the time seems right for Nevada to make noise.  With so many veteran players coming back, the Wolf Pack appear on the verge of competing for an NCAA Tournament spot once again.  This team will definitely be able to hit, but if the pitching and defense (errors were a problem in 2012) can come through, Meuchel's squad could be challenging for the MW title in its first season in the conference.

Third in a 7-part series of Mountain West softball previews.