BELTON- For Melissa Mojica and the 18th-ranked UMHB softball team, there is plenty of reason for optimism entering the 2023 season, which begins with Saturday’s doubleheader against St. Thomas (TX).
And that is even considering the departures of all-conference pitchers Bayleigh Grogan and Rachel Williams, both of whom graduated following stellar seasons in the circle last spring.
All four of the Cru’s top hitters from the team that posted a 32-11 mark in 2022 are back, including leadoff hitter Lexi Harris, who earned first-team All-ASC honors a year ago, after starting in all 43 games.
Joining Harris in the returning group is catcher Blakely Niles and second baseman Elissa Elliott, both of whom started in at least 90 percent of UMHB’s contests last season. It all adds up to a strong returning lineup that should bring a level of consistency, even as the pitching staff works to adjust to the new faces in the circle.
“Our pitching staff looks different but we have pitchers that are going to come in and do a great job for us,” Mojica said recently. “It just gives them more confidence with the defense and hitting we have. There is comfort in a lot of things staying the same, and that’s helping the pitchers realize and say, ‘I can do this.’”
The Crusaders were tremendous defensively last season, leading in the American Southwest Conference in fielding percentage at .975. The limited number of errors played a significant role in UMHB’s first 30-win season since 2014, and should factor in the success this time around as well. Nine players who started in at least 15 games last year are back on the roster, and when
“I suspect that we’re going to be in the top one or two teams in fielding percentage,” Mojica added. “Our pitchers work hard to keep the ball in the park and that’ll give us some opportunities to win games.”
The top pitchers on the roster aren’t exactly inexperienced either, though many will be in new roles. Saturday’s game one starter, Kami Flores, made great strides in preseason practice, after recording six appearances in the circle with a 1.86 ERA a season ago. She is set to see a major increase in her innings in 2023, after throwing just 9.2 last spring. Senior Grayson Long and sophomore Emilee Wade should also see significant action. Both recorded at least 29 innings in the circle a year ago.
“Emilee, Grayson, and Kami have been working extremely hard,” Mojica said. “Through the fall, and this early spring, Kami Flores has probably come on to be one of the stronger pitchers. She’ll start that first game on Saturday. Then we have some help from two freshmen, Danielle Gillean and Hannah McCallister.”
Adding that McCallister is a left-hander and Gillean is “more of a down-ball, drop-ball” pitcher, Mojica said that while the pitching staff will have a different look, there is great optimism for what the rotation can accomplish.
“There’s a lot of different look in the pitching staff this year, but I think we could be very successful with them when we piece them together and get them competing against the right people they need to be up against.”
They will have plenty of opportunities to face high-level hitters throughout UMHB’s non-conference schedule, which at first glance, can be daunting. Those tests for the pitchers in particular, begin Saturday, as St. Thomas is led by 2022 SCAC Co-Newcomer of the Year Jaelyn Simmons, who had a conference-best seven home runs last spring. Then comes a March 16 doubleheader against Eastern Connecticut State, ranked No. 17 nationally. Four days later, the Crusaders make the trip to Seguin, for a doubleheader against fourth-ranked Texas Lutheran. The ASC weekend series brings No. 13 ETBU to Belton.
In case you’re counting, that is seven games against Top 25 opponents in the span of nine days. Within the 10-day span between March 15-25, UMHB will play 11 contests, eight of which are on the road.
“To be a Top 25 team, to be a Top 10 team, we have to play against the best teams,” Mojica said. “Our non-conference is tough for sure. Having them all back-to-back is just kind of how it worked with spring break and fitting in TLU when both teams could play. The conference schedule is already predetermined.
“But then again, in order to win the conference tournament, you have to play a lot of games, and beat the toughest teams in the conference. So I think it will give us a good look at what it will look like in May and how we have to compete throughout the week.”
It will be an especially good opportunity for the freshmen on the roster, several of whom are expected to see game action this season, considering they have not yet experienced the emotion and intensity of the ASC Tournament.
“We have some really talented freshmen that are here, and I think overall, they’re the best offensive freshmen we’ve had since I’ve been the head coach,” Mojica noted. “They bring a lot of threat to our lineup to where we can easily bring someone off the bench. We have a lot of talented kids in that class who are going to step in and be helpful right away.”
UMHB’s doubleheader at Dee Dillon Field in Belton is set for 1 p.m. on Saturday. Admission is free.