COLLEGE PARK, Md. – As the 2014 Maryland softball team made its final preparations for its season-opening tournament in Miami, Fla. this weekend, a sense of excitement and energy coursed through the Comcast Center Pavilion.
Amidst the familiar sound of composite bats echoing off the Pavilion walls, head coach Laura Watten – now in her ninth season at the helm -- sat down to talk about her team for the annual season preview. Midway through the interview, Watten cut herself off to do a piece of coaching.
“Widen your stance!” encouraged Watten to a player in the batting cage.
The player made the adjustment, and subsequently delivered a pure swing that sent the ball on a beeline back to the machine it came from.
“See,” Watten said to herself. “It’s the little things.”
A year removed from failing to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four seasons, Watten and the Terrapins spent the offseason rededicating themselves to the little things. From generating a more cohesive unit in the clubhouse to stressing the need to keep pitches down, she is pleased with the state of the team.
“I like the unity, chemistry and just the culture all the way around,” Watten said. “We worked really hard at creating a positive and exciting environment that encourages a hungry mentality. I feel like we’ve created a really strong and healthy culture.”
The 2014 slate of action features four non-conference tournaments that span the nation from Florida to California, including seven opponents ranked in the RPI top-50 in the latest updates on Oct. 14, 2013, in addition to three opponents in the top-10 (Washington, Oregon and Florida).
The season includes exciting ACC home games against Georgia Tech, NC State, Syracuse, Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh, in addition to the Maryland Invitational benefitting UMTRR. The Terps will also host the ACC Tournament from May 7-May 10 as they close their final season in the conference.
Maryland returns an experienced infield corps, including Lindsey Schmeiser, who returns for her sophomore campaign at shortstop after becoming the first Terrapin in 17 years to win ACC Freshman of the Year honors. She rewrote the Maryland record books, posting a program record 59 RBIs in addition to crushing 12 home runs with a .347 average last season.
Schmeiser is joined by seasoned junior catcher Shannon Bustillos, who commanded 56 games from behind the plate in 2013. Ranking second on the team in RBIs (43), hits (49) and doubles (14), Bustillos will be a key player in both phases.
“Shannon has really stepped up this year with a hunger and positivity that has been great to see,” Watten said. “She’s the quarterback behind the plate and she’s going to be one of our main spark plugs as well.”
Senior Candice Beards retains her starting role at first base after finishing the 2013 season as one of the hottest hitters in the conference, closing the season on a torrid 17-game hit streak that included 15 RBIs and 11 doubles. Beards is backed up by Mandy Gardner, who hit four home runs last year and is currently injured, in addition to freshman Hannah Dewey.
Corey Schwartz and Juli Strange complete the infield, with Schwartz playing second base and Strange at third. Described by Watten as “a pair of sophomores with incredible work ethic,” both Schwartz and Strange will be counted on by the Terps. Jess Warner will also be a factor at third base when she returns from injury.
The Terrapin outfield is headlined by senior right fielder Amanda McCann, who is a nightmare for opposing pitchers both in the box and on the basepaths. McCann was tied for third in the ACC in walks (38) last season, and seventh in stolen bases (16).
Despite losing Sara Acosta, the team’s leader in hits from a season ago, Watten believes she has found her center field replacement with freshman Kylie Datil. The native of Murrietta, Calif., has all the tools to be a star and has received high praise from Watten.
“Kylie is an all-around athlete that can do anything and play anywhere,” Watten said. “She’s really strong, really fast, reads the ball well and has a gun of an arm. She has the potential to be one of the best center fielders in program history when it’s all said and done.”
A transfer from the Community College of Baltimore County, junior Erin Pronobis will start in left field for the Terps. A two-time All Maryland JUCO first team selection, Pronobis has the ability to step up to the plate and make things happen. The versatile Bridget Hawvermale also started 12 games in left field for the Terps last season.
Maryland returns its top two pitchers to a staff that allowed a 4.08 earned run average a season ago. Watten has high expectations for improvement in 2014 on the staff, which has been bolstered by a few more arms.
“Our pitching is coming along…I’m hoping to see a big improvement from last season to this season,” Watten said. “I’ve put a lot of pressure on them and have high expectations. We’ve added some depth and we’re healthy, so we should be able to go out and be strong all the way around.”
Junior Kaitlyn Schmeiser has the most experience on the staff, as she won 14 games and struck out 125 batters. She has grown as a leader and is pitching with high confidence heading into the season.
Madison Martin won 12 games as a freshman, and used a strong array of pitches to strike out 86 batters to the tune of nine complete game outings, while a fully healthy Brenna Nation is back after redshirting her freshman season.
The aforementioned Dewey can play on the mound, as well, featuring a left-handed release. Samantha Schweickhardt and junior transfer Jaymi Bautista-Geiger will also add depth for the Terps on the bump.