Experienced in the circle and at the plate, UMHB softball carries high expectations into 2022

Above photo courtesy of UMHB Sports Information

BELTON- Melissa Mojica is incredibly confident in her pitching staff entering the 2022 season, which will begin Saturday afternoon in Houston. And the second-year head coach has good reason to be. 

With three talented starters, in addition to multiple proven relievers, Mojica noted that this year’s pitching corps has the chance for a huge impact on a UMHB team that returns nearly its entire core group from 2021, in addition to a couple of notable transfers. 

“As far as pitching,” Mojica recently said, “this is probably the strongest pitching staff we’ve had in a long time.” 

Bayleigh Grogan is the lone returning starter from the 2021 team that reached the ASC Championship Game. The Wimberly, Texas native went 14-10 a year ago as a junior, tossing 127.1 innings with 69 strikeouts and an ERA of 3.08. She routinely made two starts each weekend, posting seven complete games. 

“Bayleigh can throw lots and lots of pitches in a weekend,” Mojica said. “She’s our senior and all the teams have seen her now for four years. So she has to work hard to adjust every single inning and keep everybody off balance. Her best pitch is her changeup, and she’s going to continue to be successful with that.” 

The graduations of Camryn Rucker and Jules Martinez left sizable holes on the pitching staff following last season, as each was an experienced starter. But the addition of transfers Grason Long and Rachel Williams have bolstered the impact the Crusaders can have in the circle in 2022. 

Williams, a graduate student, comes to Belton after spending three semesters playing at D-I Tarleton State. The Lorena High School product tallied 16 appearances, five of them starts, during the 2019 season, going 5-1 with an ERA of 2.01. 

Long joins the Cru following two years at Tyler Junior College, where she excelled in the circle. A year ago, she saw action in 24 games, starting two. Long tallied 40 innings, with an ERA of 4.55 and 47 strikeouts. 

“This year we have a really good mix of pitchers,” Mojica added. “Bayleigh is more of an in-and-out pitcher with her changeup. Rachel works down in the zone the majority of time, and then we have Grason with throws at the hands. I’m pretty excited about that combination.” 

Kami Flores is set to anchor the bullpen, and according to Mojica, has performed exceptionally well throughout the fall and preseason. Flores, a sophomore, threw 37.1 innings last season, with a 4.13 ERA. 

“She has looked really good in the bullpen this week,” Mojica said of Flores. “We scrimmaged earlier in the week. I think she gave up one hit. She can close games out for us.” 

The pitching staff is not the only strong point within the roster. UMHB returns all of its starters from last year, with the only notable departure being freshman outfielder Alyssa Bates, who started 10 games, and has transferred to Tyler Junior College. Outfielder Lexi Harris, infielders Milly Cesare and Bailey Eggleston, as well as utility player Tyeann Johnson started all 41 games in 2021. 

“It’s been nice to have all of our returners back,” Mojica said. “They’re comfortable. They know the routines, they know the expectations and have been great leaders in showing the younger kids, ‘This is how we do things.’”

The depth and talent on the roster will be challenged early, with UMHB opening the season a week earlier than usual at St. Thomas this weekend. The doubleheader, set for 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. CT, will count as an exhibition for the Cru, but allow Mojica’s squad to settle into a rhythm before beginning a high-quality non-conference schedule. 

“St. Thomas is going to be very competitive,” Mojica said. “It’s going to give us a lot to look at off the bat, and we’ll be able to see where we stand up next to the competition.” 

The Crusaders’ non-conference schedule consists of a Feb. 5 doubleheader in Belton against a Southwestern team with plenty of potential, as well as doubleheaders on consecutive days on Feb. 25 and Feb. 26 at Schreiner and Trinity (TX), respectively. Case Western Reserve, of Cleveland, Ohio, promises to be a challenge at home, as the Spartans went 27-9 a year ago. Those two contests on March 8 come a week prior to a March 15 doubleheader against Texas Lutheran, one of the nation’s most respected programs who finished ranked No. 2 in the nation by the NFCA last year. Those four contests in Belton can greatly help UMHB’s NCAA tournament resume, which always proves helpful if an at-large bid is needed. 

“TLU always is in the top three in the nation,” Mojica noted. “They’ll be one of the best teams we play all year. Southwestern is always very talented. We’ve never played Case Western, but they’re always nationally ranked, and have been in the national tournament a couple times recently. Our non-conference schedule is very difficult with some of the teams we play, but it’s got to help.

“We preach to them all the time that every game is important. Especially in division three and in our region. If we don’t win the conference, we have a very low chance of going to the postseason. That’s where that strength of schedule would play in.” 

ASC play kicks off at Hardin-Simmons on Feb. 11, in the conference’s traditional doubleheader Friday, single game Saturday format. The following weekend, UMHB hosts McMurry for a three-game series Feb. 18-19 in Belton. Undoubtedly, the most critical series of the conference schedule when it comes to the Cru’s ASC title hopes is set for April 1-2 in Marshall, Texas at ETBU. The Tigers defeated UMHB 13-4 in last year’s conference championship game, and ended the year ranked No. 10 in the country. 

UMHB posted a 27-14 record in Mojica’s first season as head coach last year, with a 19-8 conference mark. All of UMHB’s home games are contested at Dee Dillon Field.

Riley Zayas covers UMHB athletics for True To The Cru and The Belton Journal as the managing editor of True To The Cru. He can be emailed at rileyzayas@truetothecru.com.

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