Wednesday, January 16, 2013

2013 PREVIEW: UNLV Rebels

Former UCLA softball great Lisa Dodd takes over the UNLV Rebels program this season, inheriting a team that finished fourth of five teams in the Mountain West standings a year ago.

After four years and a 113-86 overall record that included a 2009 trip to the NCAA Tournament, Coach Pete Manarino's contract was not renewed, paving the way for Dodd to take over the reins as the fifth head coach in Rebels softball history.  Under Manarino's leadership, UNLV had nine All-MW players in four years and -- perhaps most impressively -- 34 Academic All-MW student-athletes.

Manarino's Rebels squad finished five games under .500 last year after three straight winning seasons.  UNLV went 31-21 in his first season (2009), followed by 33-20 and 27-18 campaigns.

When a school terminates a contract for a coach with those credentials, Dodd knows one thing is clear:  Her job is to win.  And win big.  And do it quickly.

Things are made a bit difficult with the loss of three of last season's four pitchers, along with the departure of All-MW outfielder Paige Emerson, who led the squad in virtually every offensive category.  Emerson led the team in batting average (.387), hits (63), runs (37), at-bats (165), doubles (11), triples (5), total bases (96) and slugging percentage (.582) while starting a team-high 48 of the Rebels' 49 games.

Pitchers Jessica O'Connor and Amber Petersen (both seniors a year ago), and Caitlin Klepper (a freshman in 2012) are all gone.  The trio combined for 46 appearances, 20 starts and 139 innings pitched last season.  O'Connor is the biggest loss of the three.  She went 8-8 as a senior and finished her UNLV career with 33 wins and 103 appearances in the circle.

The best news for Dodd and company is that junior pitcher Amanda Oliveto is back, and provides a good nucleus around whom to build a strong team.  Oliveto's 13-17 overall record last year is deceiving and not indicative of the type of pitcher she really is.

Already with three career no-hitters under her belt (over Cal Poly and Seattle as a freshman, and Memphis last year as a sophomore), Oliveto finished with an ERA of 2.92.  In a conference that plays a lot of games at altitude, that's an impressive number.  Oliveto has four times been named the MW Pitcher of the Week (twice in each of her two seasons) and tossed four shutouts last year.  She is a workhorse, having appeared in 40 of the Rebels' 49 games last year with 18 complete-game efforts.  She made 29 starts as a sophomore and struck out a team-high 128 batters.

Incoming freshman pitcher Francesca Foti, a former all-state honoree in Nevada (Liberty HS, Henderson), is currently the only other hurler on the roster, creating some major concern.  Heading into a season with just two pitchers is risky to say the least.  Will another pitcher eventually be added to this season's roster?  We'll see.

A lot of returning position players dot the UNLV roster.  Even with the departure of Emerson, there are numerous experienced upperclassmen returning, perhaps signifying an overall improvement on last year's .262 team batting average.

Junior All-MW outfielder Stefany Valentino is back after a strong conference season a year ago.  In MW play only, Valentino reached base safely in all 12 conference games and hit a team-leading .395 (.341 overall).  She finished with 42 hits in 42 games and concluded the year with 21 RBI.

Junior Jaexie Balilea returns after hitting .313 last season with six home runs.  Balilea's 45 hits ranked second on the squad behind Emerson.  Senior Tayler Aleman (.273 BA) led the team in home runs (10) and ranked second with 29 RBI in 46 starts last season.  Also making noise this year could be junior first baseman Tayler Van Acker (3 HR in 2012) and Pauline Monreal.  Despite just a .234 average as a sophomore last year, Monreal hit for power with 30 RBI and eight home runs, second-best on the team.

Of Monreal's 33 hits last season, more than half (17) went for extra bases.  Senior catcher Heather Harrison made 34 starts last year and hit .171.  Harrison showed some power in the school's annual Alumnae Game, blasting a home run off former Rebels pitcher Stephanie Bregante. 

A 6-member freshman recruiting class could be relied on heavily.  Maleena Esparza (La Habra HS, Calif.) is a two-time Whittier Daily News Player of the Year honoree and competed in California's tough Southern Section.  She hit .545 as a high school senior with an area-best 12 home runs.  Also from that section is highly-regarded freshman Alyssa Cordova (Chino HS), an All-CIF honoree who could see immediate playing time in the infield.

Overall, UNLV appears capable of turning things around quickly.  A lot of the burden will fall on the arm of Oliveto, who is the key to a successful season.  And there's no denying that the lack of pitching depth is a major concern.  But with the return of six position players who started more than 30 games each a year ago, UNLV could be improved.  A tougher Mountain West, with the addition of Fresno State and Nevada, awaits.

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