Tuesday, January 15, 2013

2013 PREVIEW: New Mexico Lobos

The New Mexico Lobos started out the 2012 softball season like no other.  Not only was UNM the talk of the Mountain West Conference, but also one of the top stories nationally.

New Mexico began last season by winning its first nine games and 17 of its first 19.  The wins weren't flukes, either.  The Lobos picked up early-season wins over the likes of Oregon, Texas A&M (a 15-3, run-rule victory) and Oregon State, all of whom eventually reached the NCAA Tournament.  Oregon, in fact, advanced all the way to the Women's College World Series.

By late February and early March last season, New Mexico had defied the odds, was 17-2 overall, and roared into the national Top 25 polls.  Off to the best start in school history, it looked like the Lobos were on their way to a certain NCAA Tournament berth, if not the Mountain West title also.

En route to what seemed like a record-breaking season and an NCAA bid, the team's fortunes changed quickly.  And boy did they change!  New Mexico began losing, and losing, and ... well, you get the picture.  By the time the season was over, the Lobos were alone in last place in the Mountain West standings. 

It was a stunning fall that saw UNM lose 15 of its final 18 games, and it was clear --  the Lobos peaked in February.  From March through May, New Mexico posted only one victory over a team with a winning record (a 6-5 victory in eight innings over Boise State on April 29).

New Mexico led the Mountain West in hitting last season with a .311 team average and a staggering 95 home runs.  In fact, the Lobos led the MW in virtually every offensive category (hits, runs, HR, RBI, triples, total bases).  The problems came mostly in the circle, where UNM's team earned-run average (5.46) was a full point higher than anyone else in the conference.

In Mountain West games only, New Mexico fared even worse with a league-high 6.88 team ERA.  Lobos pitchers allowed an average of 11 hits per game in conference play and gave up 94 runs in 12 contests.  UNM was the only pitching staff with a higher walk to strikeout ratio in the MW, walking 55 as a team while striking out just 31.  Clearly, for the team to improve this time around, pitching must be improved.

The entire pitching staff from a year ago returns, though none finished with an ERA below 5.00.  Kaela DeBroeck went 13-6 and tossed a team-high 133.2 innings as a junior.  Carrie Sheehan, as a freshman in 2012, went 8-9 with a team-best 5.07 ERA and picked up a MW Pitcher of the Week honor along the way, so the potential is there.  Kari Gutierrez returns for senior season after going 6-10.  All three of last year's starting pitchers walked more batters than they struck out.

Two freshman pitchers have been added by coach Erica Beach and will likely see a significant amount of time in the circle.  Both Lauren Soles and Lisa Rodrigues are from California, and Rodrigues finished with a 0.53 ERA as a senior at Heritage HS (Brentwood, Calif.) where she was named first-team All-Bay Valley League Conference for three straight years.  Soles is a lefty from Simi Valley, and led her high school team to three straight Marmonte League titles.

If it's possible, perhaps even bigger concerns lie on the offensive side of the ball.  For a team that was practically a juggernaut at the plate a year ago, it seems strange to ask:  Where will the hits and runs come from?  The losses on offense are deep and wide-ranging.

New Mexico lost All-MW, All-Region and All-American catcher Jessica Garcia, who's now playing with the NPF's Akron Racers.  Garcia had a record-breaking season a year ago with a school-record 24 home runs, which ranks second in conference, single-season history.  She led the team in virtually every offensive category, with 81 hits, 69 RBI, 166 total bases, a .448 batting average and .917 slugging percentage, in addition to those 24 home runs.

If that loss isn't enough, the departure of All-MW third baseman Stefanie Carramusa may hurt even more, if only because she was expected back.  Carramusa was set to be a senior at UNM, but enrolled at the University of Arizona in the offseason and is no longer on the squad.  For much of last season, Carramusa and Garcia went back and forth in the quest for the school's home run title.  Carramusa, with 23 round-trippers, finished one behind Garcia.  She was also second to Garcia in team hits (67), RBI (49), total bases (152) and slugging percentage (.831).  Carramusa led the Lobos with 16 doubles and will be missed.  Both she and Garcia started all 52 games a season ago.

Also gone are outfielder Kerry Hodgins (second on the team with a .369 batting average) and Shenise Cox, who started all 52 games and hit a career-high 15 home runs with a .293 average.  In all, New Mexico hit 95 homers as a team last year, but players who accounted for 75 of them are no longer with the team.  Five of the top six hitters overall are gone. 

All-MW infielder Chelsea Anaya returns as the biggest offensive threat for UNM. Anaya hit .327 with nine home runs and 33 RBI a year ago.  Also back are Jordan Sjostrand (.284, 52 starts, 7 home runs), Jordyn Bledsoe (.250 with 28 hits in 43 starts), and Sheryl Guillermo (.237, 43 starts).

One of the impact newcomers could be freshman outfielder Mariah Rimmer, who's already been forecast as the preseason MW Freshman of the Year by the web site College Sports Madness.  The speedy Rimmer finished fall ball hitting over .500 and was perfect in stolen base attempts.

On paper, this looks to be a rebuilding season in Albuquerque for Beach and the Lobos.  Only three position players who started the team's final game a year ago are back this time around.  After a disappointing, last-place finish in 2012, there's no place for New Mexico to go but up.

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