The Golden Hurricane softball team opened up their season this weekend at the FAU Kick-Off tournament. For the first time since 2010, Tulsa missed the NCAA tournament last season, and is looking to bounce back like the team that has appeared in seven NCAA tournaments since 2006.
After a second place finish in both the regular season and the conference tournament last season (their first season in the American Athletic Conference) Head Coach John Bargfeldt talked about how there wasn’t a big change in their approach to this season.
Bargfeldt said, “In fact, most of the teams we play in The American are former Conference USA teams. We were a little bit familiar with some of them. There were a couple of them that we hadn’t played at all. It does give us a little bit more familiarity with those teams that we were playing for the first time last year. But our approach—we really go into games thinking, take care of ourselves. It’s not so much about opponents, it’s about what can we do, executing things the right way.”
One thing that will help the team execute their style of play is the return of some of their key veteran contributors. They are returning six all-conference players from last season, as well as seven of the eight starting position players from last season.
“We’re looking for those players to provide leadership to maybe be able to step into a season and not be so nervous and get us off to a good start,” Bargfeldt said.
Some of those key veteran hitters include Catherine Horner, a three-year starter, who’s a middle of the lineup hitter, Shelby Estocado, a sophomore shortstop, Jodi Edmiston, the senior centerfielder and Jocelyn Sheffield, who will be playing her first season as a full time starter this year after hitting .346 off the bench last season.
On the pitching side, Caitlin Still returns as a senior after posting her career-best ERA at 2.21 and a 11–10 record in 28 appearances and 19 starts. She also set a TU record with six saves, while also tossing 11 complete games and six shutouts.
Talking about Still, Bargfeldt said, “She has really become a pitcher that has mastered the art of making at-bats uncomfortable for the opponents. She can move the ball around, different sides of the plate, different directions.”
In addition to the eleven returning players from last year’s roster, seven freshmen will join the roster; middle infielder Morgan Neal, infielder Tori Stafford, catcher Rylie Spell, left-handed pitcher Ellie Reaves and outfielders Julia Hollingsworth, Lauren Lomax and Ashley Kiser.
Bargfeldt hopes that the team can step up after the loss of the Golden Hurricane’s production from Julie Kernen and Erica Sampson, who graduated after last season. Kernen hit .331 with team-high 12 home runs, 15 doubles and 59 RBI, and Sampson hit .326 with eight homers, eight doubles, four triples and 29 RBI while scoring 57 runs.
“I don’t know that you can expect two players to step up and take the slack from the two graduated players, but collectively, if all those players make a little bit more improvement like they did from their previous year to last year, we might have five or six that come in with a better offensive season. That production can be made up from a collective group of players.”
The biggest challenge and spot to focus on for the Golden Hurricane this season starts with their pitching, said Bargfeldt.
“We lost an 18-game winner, who only had three losses. To me, it all starts in the circle. Do we have the pitching that can hold teams down, so that we can score runs. Can we throw zeroes at good teams, because good teams are going to have good pitching. They’re going to be able to throw zeroes at you.”
The second challenge for this team will be the defense. “Can our defense really make the plays for us, because I wouldn’t say that we have strikeout pitchers. We’re going to get our share of strikeouts, but we’re not going to strikeout 12–14 players per game. So we have to have that area. Our defense has to really help us, come out and make the routine play, as well as several big plays. So that’s what I really look for, to start with that. Hitting really comes and goes. I do like the fact that we have a lot of experienced hitters that are back, but we do want to have that solid defense and that solid pitching.”
In the preseason poll the team was picked to finish second in the conference, the same place that they did last season. Bargfeldt talked about that result.
“I don’t put too much stock into it. It’s nice that other coaches maybe recognize you a little bit, but to be honest with you, I think most coaches vote kind of how you finished last year. We really don’t know what new players every team has. We know that we have to go out and show it.”
Talking about the consistency that the softball program has had since he took over ten years ago, he said, “That’s what I told the players. I told them that I feel like they have the makings of a team that can establish a legacy that can be the best team ever. But, we’re going to have to play all phases of the game. We can’t lean on one phase of the game and expect that to carry us.”
“So I do think we have the potential to do that, but you know it’s all about executing and going out and being able to play against different types of pitchers and different types of teams, and those things. The potential is there. I told them just the other day, that you guys have the makings that you can be conference champs, but you know that there is a great team out there in the conference that has a great pitcher coming back (UCF), and yeah we played them tough, but we have to find a way to win those games, instead of just stay[ing] close in those games.”
Over the weekend the Golden Hurricane won their first three games against Wright State, Hofstra and Penn State by scores of 2–1, 6–3 and 11–4 respectively before falling to tournament host Florida Atlantic 1–0 late Saturday night. Emily Watson, Caitlin Sill and Ellie Reaves all threw complete games in TU’s first three games.
Looking towards the season, Bargfeldt talked about the importance of getting student support.
“Our girls play an exciting brand of softball. They play the game the right way, and any time that the students come out and support us, I know the players and us coaches, I know we really enjoy having the support behind us. So, come on out this spring and watch us, and watch some good softball.”