Feb. 5, 2014
By Brandon Joseph, Louisville Sports Information
University of Louisville softball fans will notice a change of scenery both on and off the field when the team takes the field for the 2014 season. The Cardinals welcome 11 newcomers to the team and they, along with the 10 returners from the 2013 team, will enjoy the home field advantage of a newly renovated Ulmer Stadium.
Louisville enters the season ranked No. 18 in the ESPN.com/USA Softball Collegiate Top 25 and No. 19 in the Louisville Slugger/NFCA Top 25 polls. Additionally, the Cardinals are the preseason favorites to win the inaugural American Athletic Conference championship in vote by the eight league coaches. The expectations are high for the balanced mix of veterans and newcomers.
Louisville finished the 2013 season with a 47-13 overall record after earning its tenth consecutive NCAA appearance and being selected the overall No. 15 seed for the second straight year. The Cardinals were No. 19 in the final ESPN.com/USA Softball Collegiate poll and No. 23 in the final USA Today/NFCA coaches' poll . Among the returners from that team are: 2013 All-America selection Katie Keller, All-BIG EAST team members: Whitney Arion, Caralisa Connell, Hannah Kiyohara, Rachel LeCoq and Maggie Ruckenbrod; and 2012 All-American selection Taner Fowler.
Outlook by Position
Pitchers The Cardinals return two veteran pitchers this year, as seniors Caralisa Connell and Rachel LeCoq split time in the circle in 2013. Connell posted a 25-5 record with a 2.45 ERA on her way to being named a second team All-BIG EAST selection. LeCoq also was named a 2013 second team All-BIG EAST selection as she finished with a 22-8 record and a 2.12 ERA. Connell looks to close out an already stellar career in which she has earned three straight All-BIG EAST selections. LeCoq is coming off of her first season as a Cardinal after transferring from Colgate, where she was named Patriot League Pitcher of the Year in 2011.
"This will be a unique year for us as we have four pitchers which is a luxury we haven't had in a few years," said Pearsall. "Caralisa and Rachel definitely have the experience by far, but we're going to need Tiarra, and Maryssa will definitely have to step up and help us out with innings. I think both possess the ability to do so."
Louisville Senior Maggie Ruckenbrod, a three-year starter, returns for her final season behind the plate. She was named to the 2013 NFCA All-Great Lakes Region second team and the 2013 All-BIG EAST third team after posting a .331 batting average and finishing tied for the conference lead with 18 doubles. Her school record for career pickoffs currently sits at 23 and her arm strength will continue to threaten opposing base runners this season.
The Cardinals return another veteran catcher in Senior Taner Fowler, who will split time between infield and catcher. Fowler brings excellent defensive abilities and also possesses an offensive punch. She currently sits seventh on U of L's career home run list with 26.
"Maggie Ruckenbrod has been an unbelievable catcher for us the past three years. Her arm makes teams nervous about running against us. Her ability to pick off runners has definitely been a rally-killer for many teams. She also knows the game and plays with tremendous love of the game and I think this year she will shine offensively. Taner Fowler also has a wealth of experience behind the plate and has been a solid catcher for us. We don't lose a lot when we go from Maggie to Taner in terms of arm strength, both have great arms and Taner is tremendous at blocking the ball.
Freshman Kristina Dillard will see action as well and looks to provide depth behind the plate.
"Kristina Dillard will also do some work behind the plate. She has grown a great deal and continues to improve her game. She has a good arm and a quick release and will get better and better at blocking. "
The Cards must fill the void at first base left by the graduation of All-American Alicja Wolny. Louisville has several options but will look to veteran infielder Taner Fowler and junior Brittany Duncan, a transfer from Valparaiso, who both have previous college experience at first base. Freshmen Tiarra Sanabria and Maryssa Becker could also see time at first base.
"We have our pick of people to play first base for us this year. Taner Fowler has had some experience playing there; she's very mobile and athletic and has a great arm," said Pearsall. "Tiarra Sanabria could also see time at first base. She has a very good arm and a quick release. She still has some work to do defensively, but she's coming along and will get better with more experience. Brittany Duncan, who joins our team as a transfer from Valparaiso, has played at first and can draw from her experience. Maryssa Becker has a nice glove and good footwork."
Three-time All-BIG EAST selection Katie Keller returns for her final campaign as the starter at second base, having held the position since her arrival on campus in 2011. Last season, Keller led the team and the BIG EAST with 62 runs scored while hitting .402 with 54 RBIs. She also led the team with 12 home runs. As a junior, she earned NFCA All-America second team, the NFCA All-Great Lakes Region first team, and the All-BIG EAST first team honors. She was recently named to the 2014 Top 50 "Watch List" for USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year as announced by the Amateur Softball Association of America and USA Softball.
"Katie Keller has anchored this spot for us since her freshman year," said Pearsall. "She's very steady and we know she's going to get the job done. She is very much a leader in the infield; she's very vocal and tough-nosed. Paige Alford and Hannah Kiyohara could also fill in at second base."
Third Base Last season, the Cards relied on senior Katelyn Mann and junior Kayla Soles at third base. Mann has departed after an All-BIG EAST senior season and Soles returns as the most experienced third baseman having played in 46 games with 36 starts at third base or designated player. Soles finished last season hitting .309 with five home runs, 32 RBIs and 23 runs scored.
Fowler and freshman Rachel Houck also bring added depth at third base.
"Kayla Soles enters the season as our most experienced third baseman," said Pearsall. "She has improved her ability to get to the ball and has a great arm. Taner Fowler has also played third base some in her career and could see time there. Rachel Houck is another player we can look to play third."
Junior Whitney Arion, a two-time All-BIG EAST selection, returns to shortstop where she started all 60 games in 2013. Arion finished last season with a .300 batting average with seven home runs, 39 RBIs and 33 runs scored en route to being selected to the All-BIG EAST second team.
"Whitney Arion has been our starting shortstop since her freshman year. She has a knack for making the spectacular plays look easy," said Pearsall. "She works very hard, spending many hours on her own time just trying to improve her game and is in the best shape of her career. Hannah Kiyohara has also played shortstop and could fill in if we need her."
The departure of two-time All-BIG EAST selections, left fielder Jennifer Esteban and center fielder Jordan Trimble, will force the Cards to replace two-thirds of their starting outfield. Senior Hannah Kiyohara, a two-time All-BIG EAST selection, is the most seasoned returner having played in 55 games with 55 starts in 2013. She finished fourth on the team with a .342 batting average, including 27 RBIs and 29 runs scored.
Sophomore Brittany Sims and junior Kelsi Jones, a transfer from Missouri, will also provide experience in the outfield. Jones appeared in 28 games last year with eight starts in the outfield. Sims saw action in 10 games last season.
"Hannah Kiyohara is our veteran outfielder and will continue to be a great outfielder for us, she has great desire and sheer determination to get to the ball and make plays," said Pearsall. "Brittany Sims has continued to improve as a player and develop her arm strength. Transfer Kelsi Jones has speed and will bring experience to the mix. Jordan McNary brings the most speed to the outfield and can cover a lot of territory. She continues to improve her arm and glove. Morgan Meyer brings speed, a good arm and is solid defensively. Autumn McDuffie can also see time in the outfield."
The 2014 slate features 12 teams who played in the 2013 NCAA tournament including five preseason top 25 teams: No. 5/4 Michigan, No. 12/14 Kentucky, No. 14/17 Missouri, and No. 16/13 UCLA. Seven teams on the Cards' schedule are receiving votes in the preseason rankings. UofL will get to showcase the newly-expanded Ulmer Stadium with 27 home games on the schedule.
Louisville is also set to play their lone season in the American Athletic Conference before moving to the ACC in 2015.
"This year will be a challenge as we transition from the BIG EAST to the American Athletic Conference, since the sheer number of teams drops significantly - we will see every team in the league," said Pearsall. "Houston and USF, UCF, Memphis, Rutgers can all be powerful. Our schedule will be challenging from the beginning with tournaments in Boca Raton and Jacksonville where we will face Notre Dame and Missouri. We'll also head out west to play UCLA and our home slate includes tough Michigan and Wisconsin teams. I fully expect those same 12 teams to return to post season play as well as some other teams on our schedule. We'll continue our rivalry with DePaul who won't be in our conference for the first time since we started our program. We want to continue to keep them on our schedule."
The Ulmer Stadium Expansion
In July 2013, the University of Louisville began a $3.5 million expansion project on the stadium which is scheduled to be completed by opening day of the 2014 season.
The expansion will feature an upper deck terrace with elevator access and additional seating to accommodate up to 1,000 people within the stadium, increasing the facility's capacity to approximately 2,500. The remodeling will extend to the plaza which will serve as a welcome area for fans at the main entrance. Additionally, the public restrooms will be restructured and located south of the concession area.
The upgrade will include a new team locker room and clubhouse with team meeting rooms and offices which will be located on the south side of the stadium. Restrooms will be also added to the home and visitor dugouts. A two-foot wall extending across the backstop will complete the field area improvements.
Also part of the expansion is a newly constructed press box which will feature separate booths for home and visiting radio and television as well as an area for media and game operations. The roof of the press box will be covered and provide a camera deck for televised games as well as still photography.
"We are excited about the expansion of Ulmer Stadium - additions to dugouts, press box and stands will enhance the game day experience for everyone," said head coach Sandy Pearsall. "Most important to our players are the locker room/club house which they have been looking forward to for years. I am fortunate to work for a great athletic director in Tom Jurich, who has the vision to see the needs of all of our programs here and allow us the opportunity to have the facilities we need and treat all of our athletes in a first-class manner.
Ulmer Stadium opened in 2000 and has served as the home of Cardinal softball since the program's inaugural season. The facility has served as the host site for four NCAA Regionals (2009, 2011, 2012 and 2013) and four BIG EAST Championships (2008-11). Several games have been televised locally and nationally throughout the years.