By Brooke Ortale | UTAMavs.com
ARLINGTON, Texas – Under fifth-year head coach Kristie Fox, UTA softball put together one of the best years in program history, recording its highest finish in the Sun Belt Conference on its way to its most wins since 2011.
Reaching the Sun Belt semifinals after a memorable run through the league’s tournament for the first time since entering the conference in 2014, the Mavs made their first postseason appearance since 2003, earning a birth in the National Invitational Softball Championship.
"I am really proud of the team and the way they matured and came together," UTA coach Kristie Fox said. "We faced some adversity at different points in the season and these players did a great job of being able to turn things around quickly and not get down on themselves."
The 32-win program caught fire at the end of the season, battling their way through a tough Sun Belt Schedule to close out the regular season 10-5 in the last 15 games, highlighted by their first-ever wins over perennial conference powerhouse South Alabama and a series win over Texas State for the first time since 2011 - a team that reached the NCAA tournament as an at-large.
The Mavs had one of the toughest schedules in the conference that featured 10 teams with an RPI of 100 or better, six of those making NCAA Regional appearances - Louisiana (17), Utah (19), Arizona State (19), Tulsa (25), Texas State (29) and Saint Francis (53). The Mavs knocked off Texas State, South Alabama (52), Saint Francis, Georgia State (56) and Houston (78).
Offensively, the Mavericks racked up some of the best numbers the program has ever seen. The 264 runs scored and 455 hits are second in UTA softball history. The Mavs finished the year third in RBI with 231, fourth in batting average at .281 and fifth in doubles with 73.
"I think offensively we learned a lot about competing at the plate and continued to focus on gaining and maintaining confidence," Fox said. "Early on we struggled with hitting runners in and we found others ways to get it done. I think being able to produce a lot of different ways was one of our strengths this year."
The future looks bright for the Mavericks. The teams 29 home runs are the ninth most in a single season at UTA, with underclassmen hitting 19 of those. Freshmen Whitney Walton, Reagan Wright and Aileen Garcia provided much of the pop that the team had been lacking over the last few years. The trio combined for 44 extra-base hits, with Wright tallying a team-high 17 (10 doubles, one triple and six home runs).
Hitting in the three spot for most of the season, Walton was the Mavs' top run producer, finishing fourth on the Mavs' single-season runs list with 38 and sixth in RBI with 40. The freshman also split her time between shortstop and first base making some of the most difficult plays look routine.
"Having so many underclassmen playing major roles shows the direction the program is moving," Fox said. "We were young this year so as they mature and gather more information of what playing at this level is like I see them continuing to make us better.
After playing every game at shortstop and using a slap and go, table setter approach at the plate in her freshman campaign, Laura Curry's role took a bit of a change in 2017, making the switch to centerfield and became a run producer at the dish. Perhaps no other evidence of how well the Temecula, Calif. native succeeded in her new role was her game-tying, two-out, three-run home run in bottom of the seventh inning in an elimination game against Georgia State at the Sun Belt Championships. Not only did Curry up her RBI total from a year ago, but she also had 34 runs, ninth on the Mavs' single-season list. She is one of only two Mavericks to appear on the list twice after finishing 2016 third with 39.
After becoming only the third and fourth Mavericks to ever be named NFCA All-Region honorees in 2016, Krista Rude and Sandra Mendoza continued their success in 2017, finishing the year hitting .359 and .306 respectively. Rude's 66 hits are tied for the fourth most in a single season.
Throughout her career Mendoza has been a go-to, mainstay in the Mavericks lineup, already making a number of appearances in the Maverick career record books. Through three seasons at UTA, the junior is fifth in runs with 115, chasing Brenda Woodard (83-86) at the top with 158. Her 37 doubles are third, 12 behind all-time leader Autumn Petrino (03-06) with 49. She is sixth in walks with 83 and ninth in extra-base hits with 43.
Sam Clakley was a workhorse in the circle for the Mavs, finishing third in UTA single-season history in wins with 26 and games pitched at 45. Her 39 starts are tied for fourth, while her 253.0 innings pitched are fifth.
"Sam C really did a great job this year," Fox said. "Her work ethic demands a lot from her teammates and they preform behind her. She threw a lot of innings and battled in every single one of them. I can not say enough positive things about Sam's performance this year."
With the strong season the Mavs had, Mendoza, Rude, Garcia and Clakley garnered Second-Team All-Sun Belt honors, the second-straight all-conference mentions for Mendoza, Rude and Clakley and first for Garcia.
While the underclassmen played pivotal roles for the Mavs in 2017, the leadership came from the top. Seniors Shelbi Sikes, Mallory Foster, Kacey Everett, Sam Montes and Marisa Datko were calming forces for the ball club.
Sikes and Everett have been constants in the starting lineup over the last four years, with Sikes playing outfield her first two years before making the transition to third base last season, starting nearly every game. Sikes finished her career fourth in career walks with 98. Everett was a steady presence behind the plate over the course of her career, leading the conference twice in runners caught stealing.
Foster was one of only three Mavericks to start every game in 2017, holding down the fort in right field the last two years. In 2015, Foster was the first-ever Maverick to be named NFCA Player of the Week after a breakout offensive performance at Appalachian State.
After transferring from Baylor after her freshman season, Montes came in and provided consistency in the circle for the Mavs. Montes is one of only six Mavericks to record a no-hitter after blanking Central Arkansas in 2015.
Datko was a spark plug off the bench throughout the course of her career, providing clutch hits in crucial moments as the teams go to pinch-hitter.
As the six seniors depart in helping lay the foundation that Fox hopes to continue, the depth of the roster from its juniors and underclassmen leaves no doubt that the future of UTA softball will continue to set all-time records and compete with the best that the Sun Belt has to offer.
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