Rockets Open Season at FAU "KICK-OFF" Classic This Weekend; Experience and Depth Key for "New" Toledo
Toledo, OH - The Toledo softball team commences the 2013 campaign at the Florida Atlantic "KICK-OFF" Classic this weekend at the FAU Softball Stadium. The Midnight Blue & Gold will play Massachusetts at 11:00 a.m. and FAU at 6:00 p.m. on Friday. UT will battle Maryland and No. 14 Michigan in a back-to-back doubleheader on Saturday, beginning at 9:00 a.m., and the Rockets will play LIU Brooklyn in the Sunday Finale at 1:00 p.m.
Maryland, UMass, Michigan and LIU Brooklyn all advanced to the NCAA Regionals last season. Michigan moved on to the Super Regionals and lost to eventual NCAA Champion Alabama in the best of three series.
Read below for an outlook on the upcoming Toledo softball season.
The New Toledo
The Toledo softball team is determined to make a statement to the rest of the Mid-American Conference this spring. The Rockets climbed out of the MAC cellar last season by recording t their best record in conference play since 1997. They finished fourth in the West division at 8-14 and qualified for the conference tournament for the first time under head coach Tarrah Beyster. UT became relevant again by racking up 18 wins in 2012, two more than the previous three seasons combined, and returns seven starters with 11 letterwinners. Despite last year's improvement, the Midnight Blue & Gold were recently selected by the league's coaches to finish last in the MAC West Division.
Beyster is entering her fourth season at the helm and made it clear that the girls have a chip on their shoulders heading into the season.
"There is a little bit of a motivation now to prove that last year wasn't a fluke," Beyster said. "You can tell our girls are determined just by looking into their eyes. They really want to show people they can be even better than last year."
However, Beyster was also quick to point out that work still remains for a winning season in 2013.
"We can't be settled with what happened in the past," Beyster said. "We talk about all the time how this is the 'new Toledo' and that we are very capable of being at the top of the conference. To prove that, we have to attack every day and situation with maximum effort."
The Rockets were led by outfielder Lindsey Tobias (Defiance, OH) at the plate last year. Tobias, now in her senior season, earned first-team all-league distinction as the team's leading hitter (.344 BA, 8 HR, 42 RBI, 20 SB). This year, utility player Erinn Wright (Massillon, OH) will join Tobias in the middle of the lineup following a redshirt season. Wright held the MAC's fifth-best batting average as freshman two years ago (.364), while being named to the all-conference second team and all-freshman squad. As Wright approaches full strength from rehabbing an injury, the duo is certain to strike fear into every opposing pitcher.
"They're both phenomenal players and they're just going to feed off each other at the plate," Beyster said. "If you try to avoid one you're going to get the other and their overall presence makes our entire team better. They can do anything asked of them at the plate; they're not just power hitters."
Tobias will hold down her usual position in right field this season, while Wright will be used in a utility role. Wright is also one of three captains this season.
"Off the field, Erinn is a fantastic leader and works harder than anyone I've ever seen," Beyster said. "She's had some injuries, but she always bounces back and her teammates see that and respect her."
"Erinn will provide depth at multiple positions, but will help mostly in the outfield. She sometimes makes things interesting, but she gets the job done."
Beyster also commented on Tobias' defensive prowess: "LT is a fantastic outfielder and comes out of nowhere to make plays. She has a gun and I will dare anybody in this conference to run on her."
Full of Depth
The Toledo softball team has the most depth on its roster in four years, according to Beyster.
"This is the first time since I've been here that we have multiple people that can play multiple positions," Beyster said. "There is constant competition at practice. The girls are always pushing each other and that's really bringing out the best in everybody."
Beyster mentioned senior Kristen Roznoski (Toledo, OH) and freshman Marla Gooding (Banks, OR) as players who have stood out during preseason practice.
"Roz really has a command of the barrel right now and puts the ball where she wants it. I see her really causing havoc on the bases this year," Beyster said.
Beyster on Gooding: "She's going to step up and do a lot more pitching for us than we planned for her. She did a great job throughout the fall scrimmages and winter practice."
This year's roster features six freshman, three utility players and seven girls from the western states of Oregon, Washington and Hawaii.
The Midnight Blue & Gold will implement two pitchers over the course of the season. Casi Rohr (213 IP, 31 GS) was the top thrower last year, but has since left the team after just one year in the program.
Sophomore Alli Beery (Wadsworth, OH) returns after throwing over 100 innings in her freshman campaign. The lefty hurler accumulated a 6.71 earned-run average and threw two shutouts in 35 appearances (22 GS).
"Alli didn't get as many innings in last year as we would've liked," Beyster said. "I know she was a bit disappointed in that and so were we, but she's really worked hard to comeback in better shape physically, emotionally and mentally."
According to Beyster, Beery is throwing the ball harder and has really developed a few of her pitches.
"She just looks a lot sharper and I'm really excited to see her take the reigns as a leader," Beyster added.
As mentioned above, Gooding will complement Beery from the right side of the rubber. The freshman will also see time in the infield, but will be responsible for picking up the pitching load behind Beery. Gooding posted a sub-1.00 earned-run average each year at Banks High School in Banks, OR.
"They each have their own style, so it'll be great to use them together, whether it's in the same game or back-to-back," Beyster said.
There is a possibility to see multiple lineups used in the infield during the season as a result of the team's depth.
Sophomore Allissa Turkovich (Grove City, OH) will return at shortstop after starting 53 games last year as a freshman. She posted a .131 batting average one home run and 13 runs knocked in.
"Allissa did a great job last year, and she's really improved her range in the offseason," Beyster said. "She is in great shape and that has helped her to become quicker with her backhand."
With a full year under her belt at third base, junior captain Lani Ernst (Milan, MI) will stay at the hot spot after sliding over from shortstop at the start of last season. Ernst Made 53 starts, finishing with a .248 batting average and fifth on the team in hits with 39. She also went deep four times, tied for second on the team with 25 runs scored, produced the third-most runs with 24 and swiped 10 bases in 14 attempts.
"I think she really found her niche and she loves the challenge of not letting balls get by her," Beyster said.
The right side of the infield is still up in the air with multiple candidates able to contribute at first base and second base.
According to Beyster, whoever starts at second base will depend on the pitcher. When Beery is on the rubber, UT will go with Gooding. If Gooding is in the circle, Beyster will shift Ernst over to second base and use freshman Jen Behunin (Clackamas, OR) at third.
Senior Becki Heimbigner will also be in the mix at second base, but is still recovering from a knee surgery and will be eased back into the lineup as a hitter to begin the year.
At first base, senior Courtney McCarthy (Orange, CA) and sophomore Leigh Nebendahl (Naperville, IL) will compete for playing time. In 40 games last year, McCarthy hit for an average of .203 with two doubles, two triples and one home run. Nebendahl started 41 games in her first season, posting a batting average of .256 with two home runs and 15 RBI.
"Both are big strong kids that can hit really well," Beyster said. "It's going to be more like who is feeling well and hitting at a particular time. It might also depend on the other team's lineup, and how many slappers and bunters they have to see who is quicker to the ball."
Senior co-captain Morgan Smith (Doylestown, OH) will hold down the catching duties. Smith has started 89 career games behind the plate for the Rockets. In 56 games last season, Smith recorded a .256 batting average with seven doubles, three home runs and 15 runs knocked in. She was fourth on the team in slugging and on-base percentage and finished tied for the team lead in walks (13). Smith also threw out 23 runners from behind the plate, completing the season with a .964 fielding percentage.
"She has done a fantastic job getting our pitchers ready and will be another leader on this year's team," Beyster said.
The outfield positions are solidified with Tobias in right field, Roznoski in center and sophomore Alyssa Smith (Western Springs, IL) in left field. Roznoski and Smith also provide a dynamic base-stealing threat and will bat towards the top of the order. The pair combined for 43 runs and 22 stolen bases last season.
"Smith is another slapper and we'll use her before or after Roz in the lineup," Beyster said. "Last year and in the fall, we used her in the ninth spot to turn the lineup over and she really enjoyed being in that position and had fun with it."
Freshmen Jessica Lemiuex (Tigard, OR) and Sammy Emery (Kalamazoo, MI) will also see time in the outfield.
Junior transfer Allison Beard (Ida, MI; Lake Michigan College), freshman Tasi Docktor (Wahiawa, HI) and Wright will be used all over the field in multiple positions for coach Beyster. Beard and Wright both hit from the left side of the plate, while Docktor adds another right-handed bat.
The Rockets will travel to the Kick-Off Classic for five games hosted by Florida Atlantic in Boca Raton, FL on Friday-Sunday, Feb. 15-17. Toledo jumps right into the thick of competition in its opening weekend of play against four teams that appeared in the NCAA Regionals last year - LIU Brooklyn, Maryland, Massachusetts and No. 13 Michigan. UMass is also receiving votes in the national polls this year.
"Our overall philosophy since I've been here has been that we don't want to keep playing the same opponents over and over again," Beyster said. "I like to play a tough non-conference schedule and to play a really tough opening tournament. I expect to do very well, we may take some lumps, but I expect us to battle. These are teams that I expect us to be able to compete with if we want to make it to regionals and beyond. This is where I want Toledo to be and this where I expect the girls to want to be."
Following the opening weekend at FAU, the Rockets will play four more tournaments on consecutive weekends up to March 17. UT is scheduled to play at the Frost Classic in Chattanooga, TN, Under Armour Invitational and Under Armour Classic in Clearwater, FL and the Hoosier Classic in Bloomington, IN.
"I think it's important to expand the opponent list outside of regional opponents to best prepare our team for conference play," Beyster said. "The MAC is extremely competitive and it's just getting better and better, so we have to go out and play the best teams to prepare ourselves."
The Rockets open MAC play with a doubleheader for their season home opener versus Miami on Friday, March 29. UT will play reigning MAC champion Ball State on Saturday, March 30 and Sunday, March 31.
UT will play home MAC games the next two weekends, with regional matchups with Dayton and Notre Dame during the week. Ohio and Akron visit Toledo the weekend of April 5-7, while Kent State and Buffalo close out UT's home schedule on April 12-14.
The Midnight Blue & Gold will end the season with 13 consecutive road contests and the MAC Tournament is set for May 8-11 in Akron, OH.
"The girls are excited to play these schools," Beyster said. "They want to show people they can compete and that this is the new Toledo."