Feb. 6, 2006
It is hard to determine the reason UTA Softball Head Coach Debbie Nichols-Hedrick is smiling these days.
It could be the fact that the Mavericks are opening the season at the Hawaii Paradise Classic in Manoa. Or is it the nine returning starters and the top pitcher off last year's squad?
After enduring a season where nine freshmen played a combined 194 games, the Mavericks bring a team that looks young on paper but brings loads of experience to the field in 2006.
The Mavericks return 16 letterwinners, including nine starters, off a squad that tied for fourth in the Southland Conference with a 13-14 record and finished 17-26 overall.
"We have experience under our belt now," said Hedrick who needs 39 wins this season to become the all-time wins leaders with 249. "All of our sophomores were freshmen a year ago, but got a lot of playing time. They are mentally and physically more mature. Experience-wise this group is more like juniors because of all the game time they saw last year. They had to grow up fast."
Seniors Autumn Petrino, Jill Garro, Lacey Leadbetter and Nicki Wilson will lead the team that was picks to finish fifth by the league's coaches and sixth by the sports information directors in a pre-season poll released Jan. 25.
Petrino is the top hitter off last year's squad after hitting .320 with 39 hits, 19 RBI and 15 extra-base hits.
Hedrick added hitting coach Vince Kwasnick to help the Mavericks improve on an offense that ranked eighth in the Southland Conference in batting average (.237) and had the fewest extra-base hits in the league (45).
"I am excited about our offense all the way around," said Hedrick. "I think we are going to be a stronger team and everyone's game is going to pick up offensively. We are going to be able to take some pressure off of perfect pitching and perfect defense. I don't want to rely on offense alone. Over the last five years offense has become a greater part of softball. Kids spend a lot of time on private lessons and swinging the bat and that makes everyone better.
"Autumn is a senior with a lot of power and pop in her bat. I am looking for her to be an impact at the plate and a leader on the team."
Joining Petrino in the middle of the lineup will be Cedar Hill sophomore Katie Jones after batting .310 with six RBIs in 2005.
Garro, a left-hander from Bulverde, won 12 games in 2005 with 102 strikeouts and a 2.72 earned-run-average.
"I am looking for Jill to have a really strong senior year," said Hedrick, a three-time All-America pitcher at Louisiana Tech during her college career. "I have seen her pitch some very, very good games. She wants the ball, is a competitor and wants to win. I have a lot of confidence and faith in her this year and want to see her go out on top."
Although the staff combined for a 3.71 ERA, the Mavs allowed the fewest home runs of any pitching staff in the Southland Conference and trailed Southeastern Louisiana (79) and McNeese State (91) for fewest walks (92) in a season. UTA's .961 fielding percentage was third in the league with 47 only errors on more than 1,200 chances.
"I am still big on defense and pitching," said Hedrick. "I don't think I will every stray from my philosophy."
After the Mavs season-opening tournament at Hawai'i, UTA will host the Worth/UTA Classic with Wichita State, Prairie View A&M and James Madison competing at Southwest Park in Irving. UTA's non-conference schedule includes home games against Texas Southern, New Mexico State, Louisiana Tech, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Houston and Texas Tech. The road non-conference schedule includes a trip to Austin to face fourth-ranked Texas on March 1, Centenary and a return doubleheader at A&M-Corpus Christi.
"We play a lot of tough competition and we are going up against solid pitching," said Hedrick. "Based on the way we played last season, I think we can win most games if we can score three runs a game."