This weekend the UCSB softball team will begin its 2016 season as it heads to Arizona to take on a series of preseason games at the Arizona Hillenbrand Invitational.
Following up on their respectable 34-20 overall record in 2014, the Gauchos experienced a bit of a setback last year, finishing just 19-35. With plenty of room to improve, Santa Barbara will enter the 2016 season with the intention of improving its record and dominating Big West play.
On Friday morning, UCSB will take on the Purdue Boilermakers in the weekend’s first game. Purdue finished with an overall record of 31-25 last year and advanced to the 2015 Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals.
The Boilermakers enter their 2016 season with confidence, as they will return seven position starters and two solid pitchers in junior Katie Johnson and senior Lilly Fecho. The Gauchos will have to pay close attention to two of the Boilermakers top hitters, shortstop Paris Andrew and designated player Katie Harrison, both of whom batted over .300 in 2015. The Boilermakers have won both previous matchups with the Gauchos.
Santa Barbara will play a second game on Friday afternoon against Nebraska-Omaha, which also experienced a tough 2015 season. The Mavericks finished with a record of 22-28 overall, and may face a rougher fate in 2016 as they lost multiple key players including two of their starting pitchers. However, this is a good hitting team which scores lots of runs, and looks to put pressure on the Gaucho defense.
One of the Maverick’s biggest stars is junior outfielder and right hand pitcher Lizzie Noble, who hit .294 last year, scoring 27 runs and knocking in 36 RBI’s. Senior infielder Campbell Ditto will also be a player to look for, as she scored 24 runs and finds a way to get on base despite her .242 average. Lizzie Noble, who only saw the mound 10 times last season, will be the expected starter for Friday’s match.
On Saturday, the Gauchos will face both the Southern Utah and North Texas. Senior left fielder Kylee Wolf is expected to command the Southern Utah squad this year, as she led her team in hits and runs last year and had the third highest batting average on the team.
This year will likely be one of transition and player development for North Texas, as they added eight freshmen to their roster and lost their top three hitters from last season, all of whom averaged over .300 at the plate.
To close out this weekend’s invitational, the Gauchos take on the host Arizona Wildcats. In perhaps their toughest game of the tournament, the Gauchos will face an Arizona team which last season had 11 players batting over .300, and two of which hit over .400. The Gauchos will be put to the test, as many of Arizona’s hitters have returned this year to form a powerful batting lineup.
Wildcat junior outfielder Alexis Dotson finished last season with an outstanding batting average of .435. Her teammate, junior outfielder Katiyana Mauga, hit .350 at the plate, good for the fourth best average on the team. In addition to Arizona’s intimidating offense, junior right handed pitcher Michelle Floyd can bring the heat as she struck out 135 last season to go with her 3.62 ERA, and will look to shut down the Gauchos lineup.
While UCSB has a series of tough games this weekend, it has strengths of its own, and will undoubtedly put pressure on its opponents. As a team, the Gauchos have a respectable batting average of .296, and an on base percentage of .371. They have four players in their lineup batting over .300. Outfielder Kristen Clark, who is a junior, leads the team with a batting average of .356.
In addition, sophomore outfielder Jacqueline Hinojosa leads the team with a .483 on base percentage. Senior catcher Meshalon Moore is also a team leader in multiple categories, as she scored 33 runs last season to go with her 42 RBI’s. Senior pitcher Ashley Ludlow and senior pitcher Alex Pingree are both reliable starters for this Gaucho squad, and should improve upon their collective 114 strikeouts from last season.
The Gauchos will continue to be a competitive and entertaining team this year, and this weekend’s preseason action against solid teams will serve to sharpen their hitting, pitching and defense. Look for the Gauchos to be a solid contender in Big West play this year.
A version of this article appeared on page 10 of February 11, 2016’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.