By Brooke Ortale | UTAMavs.com
ARLINGTON, Texas - A mixture of veteran presence and fresh faces look to be a good combo in the middle infield for UTA softball as they head into the 2017 season.
UTA made drastic improvements on the defensive side of the ball last year. After finishing 2015 seventh in the conference in fielding percentage (.955), committing 70 errors, the Mavs finished 2016 third in the Sun Belt in fielding percentage (.967) and nearly cut the amount of errors in half, recording 47, good for the third fewest in the SBC.
A large part of the turnaround was the success of the middle infield. The Mavs were very strong up the middle in 2016. The middle of the diamond sets the tone for the entire defensive and the middle infield is key.
Maintaining her stronghold at the second base position will be a 2016 NFCA All-Region and Sun Belt All-Conference honoree in Sandra Mendoza. The junior has been a steady presence for the Mavs, starting all 104 games over the last two seasons. After an impressive freshman year (2015) that saw her finish second on the team in batting average (.348), hits (57) and runs (51), Mendoza exploded in her sophomore campaign (2016) to destroy UTA's single-season hits (76) and batting average (.461) records.
"I just try to keep a mental mindset," Mendoza said. "I try to keep doing what I'm doing and not lose focus. I know that whatever I do, I'm doing for the team and my peers. That always helps me stay focused and stay on the right track."
Not only has been Mendoza help set a foundation for the Mavs on the offensive side of the ball, she has also been steady defensively, bringing the second highest fielding percentage (.981) of any returner into 2017.
If anybody knows how to prepare her for the expectations set upon her from such a breakout season, it's head coach Kristie Fox. As the starting shortstop for the University of Arizona, Fox helped guide Wildcats to back-to-back College World Series Championships, garnering All-World Series Team honors the second time around in 2007.
"What it's going to come down to for Sandra is staying the course and trusting the process," Fox said. "Sometimes it's the toughest coming off a year like that, so really just focusing on one moment at a time and really stepping up as a leader for the team. She's always been one that leads by example and now its come to the point where she's going to have to start leading vocally as well and she has."
For the third time in as many years, Mendoza will have a new counterpart at shortstop. Having a very strong fall and with Laura Curry transitioning to the outfield, Whitney Walton appears poised to take over the coveted position.
"Whitney has the potential to do some really great things defensively and offensively," Fox said. "There's a bit of a learning curve when it comes to playing Division I athletics come spring time, so it's really going to be how she handles that pressure and those moments. We saw that she could in the fall and she just needs to continue to trust that as she goes into the spring."
Walton comes to UTA from Lake Jackson, Texas where she was a First-Team 24-6A All-District, First-Team All-County (Brazoria), TGCA All-State and First-Team All-Greater Houston Area honoree in 2016 at Brazoswood High School.
"She's a pretty big spark on our field," Mendoza said. "She's done a great job so far and I'm excited to see what she's going to show us during the games. She practices hard everyday she comes to work and I'm excited to work with her."
A key to the success of UTA this season is going to be the depth and versatility throughout the entire lineup. Freshmen Melanie Mendoza and Avery Grimes saw time in the middle infield in the fall and are pushing Sandra Mendoza and Walton day in and day out.
"This group as a whole has some of the best talent that we've had," Fox said. "Every single one of them wants to start and that is something that we want to breed here. We have a lot of options."
Melanie Mendoza, little sister to Sandra Mendoza, received 6A All-District MVP and All-District First-Team honors during her career at Eagle Pass HS, while Grimes garnered 5-6A First-Team All-District honors at Timber Creek HS in Keller, Texas.
"We have really high expectations this year," Sandra Mendoza said. "We're really looking forward to season. We're all ready to get on the field and fight together. We're ready to not compete against each other anymore, but compete as a whole and compete against somebody else. We are ready."
2017 Positional Previews:
Middle Infield - Jan. 25
Corner Infield - Jan. 27
Outfield - Feb. 1
Pitcher - Feb. 3
Catcher/DP - Feb. 6
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