Softball Sets Sights On First-Ever Regular Season ACC Championship

VIRGINIASPORTSDOTCOM Karen Breshears is one of seven returning starters for the Cavaliers in 2000.
VIRGINIASPORTSDOTCOM
Karen Breshears is one of seven returning starters for the Cavaliers in 2000.
VIRGINIASPORTSDOTCOM

Feb. 16, 2000

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - For the Ring.

That's the Virginia softball team's mantra for the 2000 season.

After earning runner-up honors at the 1998 and 1999 Atlantic Coast Conference Softball Championships, Virginia has its sights set on winning its first-ever regular season ACC Championship, as well as the school's first ACC Tournament title since 1994. The ingredients are all there: six experienced seniors, seven returning starters, a group of newcomers that will strengthen last year's weaknesses, and add to that mix great team chemistry.

The team cheer "For the Ring" is how the 2000 Virginia softball team concludes each of its practices. That tells third-year head coach Cheryl Sprangel that the Cavaliers believe they can win the ACC titles as does she and the rest of the coaching staff. "The coaches and the players are very excited about the prospects of this season. We know we have the capability to make it our year. We have the potential and ability to put it all together and win the ACC regular season and tournament titles," said Sprangel. "Now we have to go out and accomplish that goal."

The Cavaliers have been close to winning the ACC title the last two years under Sprangel's tutelage. In each of the past two seasons, the 'Hoos have been runners-up at the ACC Championship. Sprangel has led UVa to back-to-back 30-win seasons, including a 35-26 overall record in 1999. The Cavaliers tied for third place in the ACC regular season with a 4-4 record in 1999 as well.

The 2000 version of the Virginia softball team features 16 players, including a six-member first-year class. Among the 10 returning letterwinners are seven starters that give the Cavaliers quality experience. One of the strongest characteristics of Virginia softball has been defense, both in the infield and the outfield, and that should be the case in the 2000 season as well. "The success we have had in the past can be directly attributed to our defense and I don't see that changing," stated Sprangel. Pitching is another of the Cavaliers' strengths with the return of three veteran pitchers. One area of concern that Sprangel had from last year's team was run production and she thinks that the addition of the first-year class will aid significantly in alleviating that weakness. "Offensively, we have added some bats to the lineup. One of the problems we had last year was that we would get some hits and get runners on, but we didn't have the ability to drive them in. This year, I feel we have more bats in the lineup that are capable of coming up with RBIs."

INFIELD
The Cavaliers return three of five starters in the infield. The one major loss is at shortstop with the graduation of four-year starter Lori Reese, who was a two-time All-ACC selection (1998 and 1999). Despite the loss of Reese, Sprangel feels the infield will be solid again in 2000.

Sprangel is looking for fourth-year Karen Breshears to anchor the infield at third base. "She is definitely going to be one of the cornerstones of our infield," commented Sprangel. "Karen is a proven, consistent third baseman with excellent reactions." Breshears was named to the 1999 All-ACC team as well as the ACC All-Tournament team. A two-year starter, she hit .274 last season and tied for team-high honors in runs batted in with 27. One of three players to start all 61 games, Breshears was fourth on the team with 49 hits and scored 15 runs.

With the loss of Reese at shortstop, Sprangel is looking for a pair of first-year players, Johanna Kaiser and Ruby Rojas, to step up and fill the void. "I can foresee both players settling in at shortstop and getting a lot of playing time. They split time during the fall and showed the capability to play shortstop, but being first year players, neither of them has a lot of experience," explained Sprangel. Both players have strong arms and are good hitters who will be counted on for offensive production. Kaiser has a little more range, but Rojas has more experience fielding the position. Rojas, a member of the Venezuelan national team, also earned valuable experience by playing for her home state of Carabobo in the Venezuelan Olympic Festival in December.

Virginia possesses a combination of experience and youth at second base. The experience comes from fourth-year Amy Peay. First-year Jill Bumler should also gain some valuable experience at second base in 2000. In addition to playing shortstop, Kaiser could see time at second base.

Peay has served as a utility player in the past and will have somewhat the same role this season. She is pencilled in as the starting second baseman, but will most likely shift to first base when second-year Kristen Dennis is pitching. "Amy had the opportunity to play second base last year, so she has some experience there. She has also played first and third, giving her quite a bit of collegiate experience," Sprangel said. Peay started the 56 games she appeared in last season. Her season was cut short by a finger injury. Peay hit .194 with 27 hits in 139 at-bats and scored 17 runs while driving in 10. She was a perfect six for six in stolen bases and had a .941 fielding percentage as well.

The shift of Peay to first will give Bumler and Kaiser additional playing time at second base. Bumler is a good hitter and has the most range of the second basemen on the roster. "One thing that we will be working on with Jill is more throwing consistency," said Sprangel.

At first base, the Cavaliers welcome the return of Kristen Dennis, the 1999 ACC Rookie of the Year. She was also named to the 1999 All-ACC and ACC All-Tournament teams. Dennis was a Southeast Region second-team pick as a utility player and a 1999 VaSID All-State Team selection as well. In addition to playing first base, Dennis will be pitching quite a bit in 2000. Dennis is coming off a spectacular year in which she led UVa in hitting with a .347 batting average. Dennis started all 59 games she appeared in and banged out 61 hits, including team highs of 16 doubles and two home runs. She tied Breshears for team-high honors in RBI with 27 and her 61 base hits were third on the club. Dennis was also outstanding in the field as she posted a .986 fielding percentage. She committed just four errors in 282 total chances. "When Kristen is not pitching, we will keep her in the lineup at first base because her hitting is one of the keys to our success," stated Sprangel.

Sprangel believes that catching is the area that will see the most improvement in 2000. That says a lot considering the two catchers on the team, Britton Gore and Stephanie Calhoun, are first-years. "The reason why I think the catching position will see the most improvement over last year is because both of our first-year catchers have stronger arms than we had a year ago and that will cut down on the number of steals against us. Both are solid all-around defensive players who will make our infield stronger." Gore and Calhoun had excellent fall seasons and are very capable hitters.

"The thing that impresses me about Britt is that she has cat-like quick reactions behind the plate. If any of the pitchers do get wild, she has the capability to keep the ball in front of her or track the ball down quickly. The pitchers are also very comfortable with her knowing what pitches to call in certain situations of the game to get batters out," said Sprangel.

"Stephanie has also done a good job and has a strong arm. She is good at blocking balls and keeping them in front of her. Stephanie's strongest aspect is her hitting and will help our team quite a bit with her bat. With Steph in the lineup, it won't be as easy to pitch around some other players because of her hitting ability. She makes our whole offensive lineup stronger. Because of Stephanie's bat, we want to keep her in the lineup as much as possible and that may mean playing her either at catcher or in the designated player position," Sprangel commented.

OUTFIELD
Virginia returns all three starting outfielders from last season. Fourth-years Jen Krill and Corinne Good return in left and center field, respectively, while third-year Meaghan Young is back in right field. Second-year Kelly McCabe and first-year Katie Weinberg round out the outfield corps. The latter two possess the best speed on the team. Sprangel characterizes her outfield group as fundamentally sound. The outfielders always make the routine play, but have the ability to make the spectacular play.

The 2000 season will be Young's third as the Cavaliers' starting right fielder. Young, who was selected to the 1999 ACC All-Tournament and VaSID All-State teams, hit .321 last season after hitting .308 as a rookie in 1998. She has 133 career hits after two seasons and already ranks among UVa's all-time hits leaders. In 1999, Young led Virginia with 67 hits and scored 28 runs. The leadoff hitter also drove in 21 runs and stole 11 bases. "Meg is the type of player who is always consistent offensively and defensively. She adds to the team every day and is someone we have come to count on," said Sprangel.

Good will hold down the starting role in center field. She is an outstanding defensive center fielder and notched a .970 fielding percentage with just two errors in 67 attempts. Good batted second in the lineup in 1999 and hit .208. She had 31 base hits and led the 'Hoos with 14 sacrifice hits. Good drove in 10 runs while scoring 21 times and stole seven bases. "Corinne's biggest asset is the fact that she is very solid defensively. She always gets a great jump on the ball off the bat and is an excellent communicator in center field. Her senior leadership is another key for us," said Sprangel.

Krill is the returning starter in left field, but will share the duties in left with McCabe. Last year, Krill started 57 of the 59 games she appeared in and hit .184. She drove in 20 runs and had eight sacrifice hits. "Jen has improved tremendously over the years. She is the type of player that makes the play on every ball she gets to. Jen has the ability to be a good hitter and also possesses power. The one improvement I'm hoping for this year is for her to become a more consistent hitter and step up and drive in runs when we need it."

McCabe, who is the fastest player on the team, will split time in left field with Krill. McCabe could also see time in center field and at designated player. Her biggest strengths are on offense and her great speed. She was off to a great start in 1999 before suffering a season-ending injury. In three games, McCabe was batting .600 with three hits, including a triple and had driven in four runs. "The most exciting thing about the outfield is getting Kelly McCabe back," Sprangel stated. "She is the key to improving the outfield, especially in regards to offensive production. We know what she is capable of doing. To me, she is the type of player that can get things started and make things happen. We missed her last year."

Rounding out the outfield is Weinberg, who adds depth to the outfield and will most likely see action in left and center field. She could also see spot duty in the infield. Weinberg's biggest asset is her speed, making her an ideal candidate for pinch running duties. "The addition of Katie gives us some depth and options in the outfield. Katie will also help us a lot in certain base running situations. I can foresee using her as a pinch runner in key situations in games. She is an intelligent base runner with above average speed," Sprangel said.

PITCHING
With the return of four pitchers, including three that won nine or more games in 1999, pitching must be considered a strength for the 2000 Virginia softball team. Sprangel will look to fourth-years Chrissy Quinn and Stacey Zagol, along with Kristen Dennis to shoulder most of the pitching duties. Second-year Erin Allinder will also see quality action this season.

Zagol led the pitching staff with 11 victories last year. She started 20 games and appeared in 27 with an 11-10 record and a 2.29 earned run average. Zagol pitched 134.1 innings and struck out 65 batters while walking 26. She also notched team highs of 15 complete games, five shutouts and two saves. Quinn was 9-8 with a 2.25 ERA last season. She pitched 112 innings and completed 12 of the 15 games she started. Quinn led the ACC with just over one strikeout per seven innings (7.06). She totaled 113 while walking 59 batters.

"Both Chrissy and Stacey return with a great amount of experience. They have both had great years in the past and are determined to go out on a high note. Having those two lead our pitching staff is very exciting," said Sprangel.

The other exciting aspect in the pitching department is the return of Dennis. As a freshman, she posted a 9-6 record with a 1.64 ERA and was named the ACC Rookie of the Year. Dennis threw 10 complete games, including four shutouts in 15 starts. In 111 innings, she gave up 77 hits with opposing batters hitting just .192. "We knew Kristen was going to do well last year, but she really came on strong towards the end of the season. If she can pick up where she left off last year she will have an even better year," Sprangel said. "Kristen has shown the ability to totally shut down teams - very good offensive teams. The best example is Maryland, who was one of the best hitting teams in the nation last year and Kristen was able to shut them down and beat them three out of four times. She has shown the capability to pitch against anyone and be successful."

Allinder was 1-1 last season and posted a 1.68 ERA. She started three games and completed two, including a shutout against George Mason. In 16.2 innings, Allinder struck out nine batters and walked three. "Erin was able to pick up some experience last year. The games she did get to pitch in she showed a lot of maturity and a lot of experience. We have her in the background ready to step up when we need her," commented Sprangel.

SCHEDULE
The Cavaliers will play a 65-game schedule in 2000 with 22 of those contests occurring at home at The Park. In addition to hosting the Cavalier Classic and the Hoo's Who Tournament in March, Virginia will play in five other regular season tournaments. Two of the tournaments have the Cavaliers traveling to California, while the others are in Las Vegas, Fayetteville, Ark., and Chapel Hill, N.C. UVa will also travel to Tallahassee, Fla., to compete in the 2000 ACC Softball Tournament.

"Every year our schedule gets tougher. Our record ended up pretty much the same last season as it was the year before, but last year I knew we were better because we had a stronger schedule. This year, I think it is the same case. We keep stepping up the schedule, where we are playing more top-20 teams, but that is something we need to do in order to reach our goal of making the NCAA Tournament," Sprangel stated.

"We know we are a stronger team all-around. The key to this season is to make sure we take one game at a time and step up when we have to do it. One of the biggest areas that I would like to improve is the ability to step up and knock in runs during crucial situations. That will be the key to our success. There has been a lot of talk that we are going to do it, but the real key is that we really do step up when it comes time. We need to stay focused on that. Nothing is ever handed to you, you have to go out and earn it," concluded Sprangel.

And the Cavaliers want to earn that ring.