Relentless: Texas Softball Looks to Return to the College World Series in 2015 | Horns Illustrated
After a devastating loss and early exit from the NCAA postseason tournament, Texas Softball is itching to get back to the Women’s College World Series.
“This group is motivated to make it to the top eight,” head coach Connie Clark said. “We want to be at the Women’s College World Series and that’s all we’re talking about.”
The Texas softball team faces a difficult road this season, facing three teams that played in last year’s College World Series — Oregon, Baylor and Oklahoma. The Longhorns’ schedule also includes 18 other teams that made it to the 2014 postseason.
Their tough schedule will help keep the team on its toes as the Longhorns work toward the College World Series — a feat they achieved two years ago. The team shares a common sentiment that anything short of a trip to the championship game will be a disappointment.
“We came up short in Regionals last year and it’s just an extra push to get even further this year,” junior second baseman Stephanie Ceo said. “Our goal every year is to get back to the World Series and win. We’re always going to have that motivation.”
Texas’ schedule also features eight opponents that finished the 2014 season ranked in the final 2014 National Fastpitch Coaches Association Top 25 poll. Four of those teams were in the top 10 — Oregon (3), Baylor (4), Oklahoma (5) and UCLA (9).
Texas faced Oregon early on in its season on Feb. 6. Shortly after, the Longhorns faced UCLA as part of the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic in Cathedral City, Calif. on Feb. 9. Texas will face both Oklahoma and Baylor in a three-game series later on in the season.
The Longhorns opened their season in Tempe, Ariz. at the Kajikawa Classic, where they played both Oregon and UC-Santa Barbara. After competing in the Kajikawa Classic, the team returned to Austin to open its home schedule with the Texas Classic against Indiana University–Purdue on Feb. 13.
As they do every year, the Longhorns opened their season by competing in five different tournaments throughout February and into March. After the Kajikawa and Texas classics, the Longhorns will travel to California for the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic before hosting the Texas Invitational at the end of February. To conclude their tournament schedule, the Longhorns will travel to Chapel Hill, N.C., to compete in the Carolina Classic.
Texas will finish its nonconference schedule with a series against Arkansas and contests against Georgia Southern and UTSA. The team will then face Kansas on the road to open the Longhorns’ 2015 Big 12 conference season.
The Longhorns’ Big 12 schedule is headlined by a home series against Oklahoma toward the middle of April. Oklahoma is entering the 2015 season as the favorite to repeat for Big 12 league champion. Despite losing an All-Big 12 athlete in Brittany Williams, the Sooners are returning all but three players from a team that made it to the College World Series.
In addition to Oklahoma, the Longhorns can look forward to some heavy conference competition. Kansas is a team to watch this season as they return most of their lineup from 2014 — a lineup that reached the NCAA postseason for the first time since the 2006 season. Baylor is also a tough team as the Bears also played in last year’s College World Series and lost only three seniors from their roster.
The Longhorns are returning six starters this season from last year’s squad, including Ceo, junior All-American outfielder Lindsey Stephens and sophomore pitcher Tiarra Davis.
Davis will lead a deep contingent in the circle that will include senior Gabby Smith, sophomore Lauren Slatten and newcomers Kristen Clark and Erica Wright.
A finalist for NFCA Freshman of the Year last season, Davis started 36 games and appeared in 44 games for the Longhorns.
“If you watched video of Tiarra from a year ago, you would’ve been amazed at the transformation,” Clark said of Davis’ improvements from last year.
Davis finished with a 19-14 record and a 2.38 ERA in the circle for the Longhorns. Through 200 innings pitched, she gave up 87 runs and 153 hits while striking out 176 batters. Smith finished with a 2.80 ERA in the circle with 86 strikeouts while giving up 53 runs and 90 hits through 112.2 innings.
Clark, an incoming freshman, was a two-time district pitcher of the year for district 23-4A in high school and won 2014 District 23-4A Most Valuable Player honors as a senior. During her final season with Foster High School in Richmond, Texas, Clark finished with a 23-6 record in the circle and had a 1.00 ERA with 270 strikeouts through 150 innings. She pitched three perfect games, 13 shutouts and seven no-hitters. At the plate, Clark hit .544 with 11 home runs and 39 RBIs.
During her senior season, freshman Wright finished with a 31-2 record and 0.50 ERA while playing for Huntington High School in Huntington, Texas. Wright finished with 441 strikeouts through almost 200 innings of work and hit .590 at the plate. She scored 48 runs and contributed 12 doubles and 17 RBIs at the plate. Wright was named all-state four times by the Texas Sports Writers Association and earned 2014 Texas Girls Coaches Association and Academic All-State honors.
“She’s a great competitor,” Clark said. “She has good stuff and is working on a curveball and a change-up. Those are things she’s been keying on since she got here.”
Alyssa Angel and Randel Leahy round out the Longhorns’ 2015 class.
Angel is a shortstop from La Grange, Texas, who’s expected to help fill the void left by Big 12 Player of the Year Taylor Thom, who graduated last season. Angel, who was a National High School Player of the Year candidate, finished high school with a career batting average of .499. She scored 233 runs and notched 22 home runs while driving in 176 RBIs.
“She’s a versatile player that could play anywhere,” Clark said. “She has the ability to be a force in the infield or outfield. She’s similar to Taylor when she first came out of high school.”
Leahy is a catcher from Norco, Calif., and will compete against juniors Erin Shireman and Taylor King for the starting role behind the plate, a role formerly held by Mandy Ogle, who also graduated after last season. Leahy finished her career at Santiago High School with a .362 average at the plate while scoring 127 runs and finishing with 31 home runs and 106 RBIs.
Stephens and Ceo, along with fellow junior Rachel Scott, will act as this year’s team captains. Clark is hoping that the experience these juniors had at the College World Series two years ago will help focus a young team. This year’s team, after losing several key seniors, returns with only two seniors on its roster.
“The team and the staff did a great job of being on the same page on who we wanted as captains,” Clark said. “Those are three young women that are ready to take on the reign.”
Both Stephens and Ceo will be key players for the Longhorns this season. In the offseason, Stephens moved over to centerfield to replace speedster center fielder Brejae Washington, who graduated last season.
Stephens started in all 58 games for the Longhorns last season and finished with a .371 average at the plate. Through 178 at-bats, Stephens scored 47 runs and 66 hits with 16 home runs and 66 RBIs. Stephens will provide much-needed experience on a young team that is looking to redeem itself.
Ceo will also be another important factor on the field for the Longhorns this season. The junior second baseman from California finished last season with a .362 batting average through 58 games. Ceo finished with 26 runs and 50 hits, two home runs and 19 RBIs in 2014.
“I’m excited to be able to get things rolling,” Ceo said at the start of spring practice. “I think that we can do it, I think with this team, we have the best shot that we’ve ever had.”
The Longhorns prepared for their challenging 2015 season by playing in five fall games and a special Veterans Day exhibition game. Throughout the fall, the Longhorns hosted McLennan Community College, the University of the Incarnate Word, Galveston College and St. Edward’s. The team also traveled to face Texas State in San Marcos.
Texas concluded its fall lineup with a Veterans Day game on Nov. 11 in which the Longhorns teamed up with local veterans to play a friendly game featuring the “Stars” versus the “Stripes.”
In their season opener, the Longhorns defeated McLennan 5-0 thanks to a 15-strikeout effort from five pitchers. Sophomore Kelli Hanzel led the Longhorns at the plate, going 2-for-2, and finished with two RBIs. Against Incarnate Word, the Longhorns dominated at the plate, shutting out the Cardinals 11-0 thanks to 13 hits while surrendering only four hits in the shutout.
Their offensive success did not stop there. The team posted a 10-3 victory over Galveston College in its third fall game. Sophomore Devon Tunning led at the plate going 2-for-2, scoring two runs and finishing with an RBI double. Wright struck out six during her two innings in the circle.
Against St. Edward’s, Angel led the Longhorns to a 17-2 victory based on 16 hits. Angel went 2-for-2 at the plate with three RBIs. In the circle, Davis struck out six and gave up no hits through three innings of work. Wright again pitched for the Longhorns, striking out three while giving up only one run through two innings.
For their final fall game, the Longhorns traveled to Texas State, where they defeated the Bobcats 8-2 to remain perfect during fall play. Tunning was a perfect 4-for-4 at the plate, contributing two singles, a double and a home run. Wright pitched two innings for the Longhorns and finished with five strikeouts.
The Longhorns clearly found success at the plate throughout the fall, outscoring the opposition 51-7, and finished 5-0.
Texas finished the 2014 season with a 35-23 overall record and a 12-6 mark in the Big 12. The team finished four games behind league champion Oklahoma and one game behind runner-up Baylor.
Texas earned a trip to the 2014 NCAA postseason tournament and traveled to Louisiana-Lafayette for the first round of play. The Longhorns defeated Mississippi State 1-0 in the first game before dropping game two to host Louisiana-Lafayette 2-3.
Facing elimination, the Longhorns, led by Stephens, came back from a 1-3 deficit to defeat Mississippi State 4-3. In game four, the Longhorns fell again to host Louisiana-Lafayaette 10-1, eliminating them from the postseason and ending their dreams of reaching the College World Series again.
“Losing that game [last season] was heartbreaking,” Stephens said. “It was actually hard for me to watch the College World Series; but we’re going to get back there.”