In a very overdue post, I'd like to take a look at the UT Arlington softball team, which, at 29-19, enjoyed their first winning season since 2011. This team is one of the hardest for me to talk about because of their circumstances. I'll get into the meat and potatoes of the season in a bit, but let's look at what makes this team unique versus the other 13 teams at UTA.
Like a couple of other teams in the Athletic Department, softball entered the realignment period in rebuilding mode. UTA finished their last year in the Southland Conference tied for last, going 15-27, 5-15 in SLC play. UTA's first and only year in the Western Athletic Conference, also the first year of Coach Kristi Fox, saw another losing season, this one at 25-28, but 9-15 in WAC play, good for a tie for sixth out of eight teams. In 2014, they were 21-33 overall and 5-17 in Sun Belt play. Last year, they finished 27-28 and 8-14 in the SBC.
While their improvement can sorta be seen in the numbers, they've finished .500 or better in non-conference play every year since leaving the Southland, what can't be seen is the challenge in rebuilding a program at the time the Mavericks were.
The Sun Belt is one of the best softball conferences in the country, rated sixth-to-seventh right now. The SLC was a good conference, but never a great one, they are in the mid-teens currently. The SLC has never had more than one team in the NCAA Tournament, even when the regular season champion doesn't win the conference tournament. The SBC has done it six times, including the last four years. In 2013, they sent three teams and some projections are predicting three teams this year.
So, while volleyball entered the SBC after an 8-23 record, women's basketball entered after a 7-23 tally, men's tennis came in after a 7-14 mark and women's tennis was 7-13, none had the task of moving into one of the top conferences in the NCAA in that sport.
So softball was in the unique position of not only rebuilding, but facing some of the toughest competition in the country nearly every game while doing it. It is tough offering commentary on a team that has improved on a talent level but not shown it in the W-L column.
The team started 19-0 this year, the best start in school history. That even lead to some votes in the top 25 polls. I thought at the time that was overrating the team a bit, as the 19 wins weren't against the toughest competition. The good news is that among those 19 wins were teams and situations that would have been losses in prior years. What I liked was the attitude displayed. There were many victories that came in the last inning or last at-bat. The never-down-until-the-last-out-is-recorded attitude was very refreshing to see.
Then SBC play started. UTA won only two conference series' and were swept twice. I was expecting to be swept against a ranked Louisiana squad, but they beat the Cajuns in the third game. I was hoping for at least one win against Texas State, but that didn't happen. I also was a bit disappointed that UTA didn't win the series versus Georgia State and Troy. I think they are more talented than the Panthers and UTA was in control of game one versus the Trojans before letting it slip away late, one of the few times that happened this year. I thought this could be a .500 SBC team, but it didn't happen.
They enter the conference tournament tomorrow as the seventh seed. A rematch with Troy at 12:30 will kick things off. The first game is single-elimination. The winner faces Texas State. The tournament is in Mobile, so Troy could have a lot of fans there. Good test early for the Mavericks.
The roster is young, giving hope to the future. I really liked what I saw out of Samantha Clakley. The freshman pitcher went 18-13 with a 3.11 ERA. Her pitches move and if she can work on location, she could be fantastic. She was the workhorse with 191.1 innings pitched, more than 140 over second place. There wasn't much depth behind her. Last year's main starter, Sam Montes, only appeared in 15 games with 8 starts. She was 6-1 with a 5.76 ERA. I know she had injury issues last year, and likely had some holdover this year. Brooklynne Simbeck, a junior transfer was second in innings pitched, but she struggled too. 3-3, 5.35 ERA in 51 IP.
Getting a quality second pitcher is paramount. But that is also a part of rebuilding. When a team is blowing and going, the second pitcher is usually an underclassmen to a veteran. After Terri Lyles left, there was no quality pitcher to take her spot. If the Mavs can get another Clakley-type for next year, UTA will be in great shape in the circle.
UTA's top three batting average leaders, Sandra Mendoza (so), Krista Rude (fr) and Laura Curry (fr) are all young as well. In fact, out of the top eight at UTA in at bats, only Britnea Barilli is a senior. That group of non-seniors do pretty well at the play. The main weakness I see is the lack of a power hitter. UTA hit 11 home runs, compared to 31 given up. But the offense as a whole should be strong. They were shut out five times in SBC play, though. But two of those were to the ranked Louisiana team and two were to Texas State's Randi Rupp, a quality young pitcher (grumble, grumble).
It is nice to give Coach Fox the luxury of needing one good pitcher and a roster compliment. Any upgrades in talent will have an immediate effect as there is no need to replace a large amount of production.
To show that the talent is there, but just young, of the 16 conference losses, five were by two runs or less. UTA also lost to North Texas on the road, 1-0 in eight innings. A more experienced, slightly more talented team will win more of those games. I have great hope for the future of the softball program. I hope it is
understandable why it was hard to express that optimism in the losses
that started to mount in conference play.