Young Softball Team Geared Up For Opener

Clara Navarro is one of four Army seniors on 2012 squad

Clara Navarro is one of four Army seniors on 2012 squad

Feb. 9, 2012

WEST POINT, N.Y. - Army's softball team opens its season this weekend at the fifth annual Red and Black Showcase hosted by the University of Georgia. The Black Knights lift the lid on their 34th season and third under head coach Michelle DePolo Friday afternoon against Utah State at 3 p.m. followed by the host Bulldogs at 7 p.m.

Two more games will be played Saturday with Army taking on Campbell at 5 p.m. followed by North Carolina State at 7 p.m. before closing out the first weekend of competition against St. John's Sunday morning at 11 a.m.

Campbell posted a 32-28 mark last year and finished third in the Atlantic-Sun, but moved this year to the Big South Conference where they were picked fourth preseason. The Fighting Camels' last NCAA Tournament appearance was in 2009.

Utah State finished the 2011 season 15-42 overall and 8-13 in the Western Athletic Conference. The Aggies return a solid core of players who logged a total of over 302 innings a season ago. St. John's, posting 20 wins in 2011, returns Kacee Cox, who led the BIG EAST with a .404 average in 2010, and hurler Aleshia Link, whose 2.55 ERA was tops for the Red Storm in 2011.

The host Bulldogs present a tough challenge in the six-team field following a 2011 season that ended at the Super Regional round of play in their 10th consecutive NCAA appearances en route to finishing the season with 51 wins. In preseason polls this year, they were tabbed as the No.10/12 team nationally and fourth in the SEC Eastern Division.

Live stats of all the games will be available on Georgia's website at www.georgiadogs.com, with radio available through GTV at www.georgiadogs.com in games against the host Bulldogs.

For more information on the 2012 Black Knights, a detailed season outlook follows:

A promising young Army softball team put the finishing touches on its fall campaign with a 4-3 win over NCAA Tournament participant Maryland, and head coach Michelle DePolo is looking to build upon that success this spring.

After leading Army to a 28-25 record and fourth place in the Patriot League last year, DePolo returns a solid nucleus with six of last year's top seven batters among its nine returning letterwinners. The Army mentor will look to the senior class to provide leadership, along with a wealth of experience to a 15-member squad comprised of four seniors, a junior, four sophomores and six freshmen. The newcomers will not only provide depth, but are expected to contribute immediately

Seniors Alexis AuBuchon and Rachael Duval, the co-captains, along with Clara Navarro, will provide leadership behind the plate and at the corners, respectively, with Reanna Johnson once again providing a veteran presence in the outfield. This group heads into their final season with 447 hits, 209 RBI and 236 runs scored between them. They played an instrumental role leading Army to the Patriot League regular-season title in 2010 en route to setting a school mark with 33 wins.

Four Patriot League all-stars dot Army's roster with three classes represented in seniors AuBuchon (first base) and Johnson (outfield), junior Alex Reynolds (second base) and sophomore Amanda Nguyen (outfield). The latter two earned first-team honors last year, while AuBuchon and Johnson were second-team selections in 2010 and 2009, respectively.

With positioned starters returning in the infield and all three outfielders back in the fold, DePolo has reason to be optimistic this season. "I am excited about the team overall," states the league's 2010 coach of the year. "We have a great corps of seniors and our offense is well balanced between consistency, power and speed. Though we have a lot of veterans, the team is young.

"Our intention three years ago was to be strong up the middle, which we set into place last year and will be more dominant this spring with a veteran presence. Last year we made the switch for middle infield during the spring trip to Florida. April (Ortenzo) and Alex (Reynolds), who are relatively young, were switched to shortstop and second base when we moved Amanda (Nguyen) to left field. In center field we have Reanna (Johnson), who covers a great deal of ground and is capable of throwing out runners attempting to go home."

Though Army has a wealth of talent in the pitching department, it doesn't have the benefit of being an experienced staff. That has been the norm rather than the exception the past three years.

"We are young once again on the pitching side," noted DePolo. "We haven't had veterans to carry the load in my tenure as head coach. Even when I started as an assistant in 2008, we had a pitching staff with almost no experience. Last year we had two freshmen who combined to pitch over 65 percent of our games.

"Youth in the circle is nothing that I am not familiar with. Our young staff this season is very promising based on the tremendous job they did in the fall, then continued their development into the off season.

"Our three pitchers have different talents, which we will use to our advantage depending upon the situation and what we need for the course of a game, a series, or a weekend."

Army's young staff will be tested early in the season when the Black Knights compete at the fifth annual Red & Black Showcase hosted by the University of Georgia. The Bulldogs, tabbed the No. 10/12 team in national preseason polls, advanced to the Super Regional round en route to posting 51 wins last year. Army will be part of the field at the Spartan Classic in Norfolk, Va., followed by the Colonial Classic hosted by George Washington prior to making its yearly sojourn to Florida during spring break. It is Army's toughest season-opening schedule since appearing at the NFCA Leadoff Classic in 2004.

"We are looking forward to the opening tournament, and there is no bigger stage than taking on Georgia," offered DePolo. "It is a great environment to play in, and whatever happens, we will be able to build upon and use going forward.

"Our ultimate goal every year is to earn a berth to the Patriot League Tournament, which puts us in the position to win the title and automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. We enjoyed hosting the tournament two years ago, and would like to do so again. That requires winning the regular-season title by focusing on every single pitch, every single plate appearance and every out in every inning."

CATCHERS

Senior Rachael Duval returns behind the dish after taking over that position last year. A starter since arriving at the Academy, Duval has played in 161 consecutive games with the first two years at third base before taking over catching duties. The Army co-captain brings much needed veteran leadership behind the plate as the receiver for a young pitching staff that includes two freshmen and a sophomore. Duval is also a dangerous threat in the middle of the Black Knights' batting order. Last year she tied for the lead in doubles (13), was second in runs (32) and ranked among the RBI leaders (26) batting .245.

"Rachael is hands down one of the top defensive catchers in the league," stated DePolo. "She blocked an incredible amount of balls and wild pitches last year, saving us many times. She is very smart and takes command of whatever pitcher is in the circle and does an excellent job. She will be asked to do so again with three young pitchers who have different styles."

In addition to working with the pitching staff, Duval has been helping newcomer Rae Anne Payleitner into the collegiate game teaching her how to control the tempo behind the plate. Payleitner, an all-state catcher from Illinois, played fall ball but did not catch, and is working hard after recovering from an injury that limited her from practicing early in the off season. A power hitter who can send the ball deep into the alleys, Payleitner will be competing for the designated player role as well as taking turns in the lineup as a pinch hitter in key situations.

PITCHERS

Army will once again sport a young look in its pitching staff with sophomore left hander Marina Northup the veteran member. She logged 52 innings with 17 appearances, six starts and two completions posting a 4.17 earned run average last year.

Freshmen right-handers Morgan Lashley and Jules Steurer are coming off of strong fall performances. An all-state pitcher from North Carolina, Lashley went the distance in Army's 4-3 win over NCAA Tournament participant Maryland, while Steurer recorded several strong outings highlighted with six straight outs on 16 pitches in a relief role against Howard in closing out the fall slate.

Northup brings a solid bat with her to the circle, having filled in as the designated player in several games last year. She hit .333 in eight games at the No. 5 spot, while batting .207 overall in 92 at-bats.

The native of San Antonio, Texas, who relies on off speed pitches and control, recorded a pair of wins last year. She went the distance in a 10-3 decision over Rider in the opening game at the Rebel Spring games with all three runs unearned. She posted five strikeouts in a 10-0 five-inning nightcap win in a non-league road sweep of St. Peter's, and her performance earned her the starting nod in Army's Patriot League series opener with Holy Cross in its next outing.

Northup spent the majority of her 19 games in league play as the DP compiling a .256 batting average, while appearing in just five conference games in Army's pitching rotation

Lashley comes into the program with a plethora of honors playing for North Mecklenburg H.S. She closed out her senior year with a stingy 0.94 ERA compiling a 20-4 record and setting the school strikeout record (309). Lashley was tabbed the district's pitcher of the year and regional co-pitcher after earning first-team honors in both.

Steurer, capable of handling a number of positions when not in the circle, was a three-year starter with her club team (Tuff-n-Tuffer Gold) growing up in Morris Plains, N.J.

"All three pitchers have natural ability and will serve vital roles in our lineup," said DePolo. "Morgan continued to develop through the fall and into the off season. She can place the ball, has great control and spins it impeccably well. She understands her job is to keep players off the bases whether it is a strikeout, groundout or flyout.

"Jules is the quintessential utility player. She is a pitcher, catcher, infielder, outfielder and can hit. After a very promising fall and a great deal of work in the off season, Steurer will mainly shoulder pitching leads with Lashley and Northup. Her drop ball is very strong, but she has a repertoire of pitches to compliment it. She doesn't give up a lot of long balls, keeps a low pitch count and doesn't walk them either.

"Marina gave us some very solid innings last year," continued DePolo, "and has improved a great deal since then. She has added pitches to her arsenal and looks better by the day. I look forward to seeing her effectiveness in games this season. As a lefty with a different delivery, she has tremendous off speed and control."

Army has the offense and defense to support its pitching, and that combination, along with the talent of the veterans and newcomers, makes the Black Knights a formidable foe.

INFIELD

The infield is strong this season with all four starters back starting with senior co-captain Alexis AuBuchon at first base. Junior Alex Reynolds and sophomore April Ortenzo at shortstop and second base, respectively, will once again handle the middle of the infield. Senior Clara Navarro, a defensive specialist who filled in at third base in 32 games last year, provides Army with flexibility. She is capable of contributing in any field position having also drawn duty at second base, shortstop and outfield over her first three years.

Head coach Michelle DePolo shifted the middle infield last year during the spring trip to Florida. She switched freshman Amanda Nguyen to left field, moved Reynolds from shortstop to second base and Ortenzo from third base to shortstop, while bringing in Navarro at third. Reynolds and Nguyen went on to earn first-team all-star honors at their positions in 2011.

"When we moved Amanda to the outfield, we needed to fill an in field spot, so we switched April to shortstop," explained DePolo. "She has a tremendous amount of range and makes challenging plays with ease and clutch plays with a clean demeanor. The switch to the other side of the diamond was quite an adjustment, but she showed maturity and mental toughness with the move."

Ortenzo's 36 runs batted in and 53 hits list second and ninth, respectively, on Army's single-season chart, and she was one of the team's top run producers with 32 batting at the No. 2 spot in the lineup.

Reynolds not only complimented Ortenzo up the middle, but followed her last year in the lineup where she ranked second on the team batting .310, stroking 10 doubles, one triple, six home runs, scored 29 runs, and set an Army single-season record with 45 RBI. The double-play combination of Reynolds and Ortenzo led to the Black Knights being ranked 21st (0.42) last spring.

On the corners are AuBuchon at first base with Navarro in the hunt for third base. AuBuchon opens her fourth season holding down first base. A 2010 second team league all-star and all-tournament team selection, AuBuchon led Army in batting her freshman and sophomore years, and ranked among its leaders last year.

Listed on Army's career chart in doubles (40), batting average (.335), RBI (73), total bases (222) and walks (48), AuBuchon is looking for a productive senior year.

Vying with Navarro for third base is freshman Alex Gaff, who split duties with her in the fall, along with AuBuchon at first base. Gaff batted .365 in high school and brings a strong bat and power to the plate.

OUTFIELD

Army returns starters Reanna Johnson (center field), sophomore Amanda Nguyen (left field) and sophomore Meghan McGowan, who assumed the lead in right field at season's end last spring.

Defensively, all three have speed to track the ball, arm strength and accuracy, and are solid contact hitters offensively. Nguyen, a first-team all-league and all-tournament selection, is coming off a prolific freshman season that saw her shatter Army's single-season records for hits (70), runs (41) and stolen bases (27), while tied for eighth in batting average (.383). The slap-hitting speedster and Army's leadoff batter in 2011 ranked among the league's leaders in all four categories.

"Amanda worked hard during the offseason slapping with power and placement, along with hitting from the left side," said DePolo. "This year when teams move in on her, she will place the ball over their heads. We just need Amanda to continue to get on base, and we are perfecting several ways to do that, but it is a matter of what the defense does.

"If the opponents make one wrong move, she will capitalize. She is our table setter and knows her role is to get on base. Defensively, left field seems to fit her best."

Johnson, who earned all-league honors as a freshman, ranks among the league's top returning outfielders. Heading into her third season in center field, she covers a great deal of ground and has a powerful arm that is capable of throwing out runners heading home. The fleet footed outfielder is a dangerous threat on the bases where she is tied for 10th place on Army's career chart with 27 steals, sharing that spot with Nguyen. The first two years, Johnson batted close to .300 but slipped to .215 last year. However, she hit .241 in conference games, and moved into the cleanup role during the fall.

"Though taking time to develop offensively, Reanna is the epitome defensive player," stated the Army mentor. "She typifies the way you want players to develop over the course of their four years. Reanna was good as a freshman and became better each year. If there is going to be a close play at the plate when we are on defense, I want the ball to go to Reanna."

McGowan shared right field duties last year and manned the job late in the season when Natalia Gruenbaum was injured. She batted .225 in the lower half of the lineup and will be in thick of battle once again.

Competition will be heated throughout the spring with sophomore Marina Northup, McGowan and newcomer Ali Cleinmark vying for right field after drawing duty during the fall. At the start of the season, they will likely play that position on a committee basis.

Northup has a solid bat and could draw several turns in the outfield when not pitching. A natural lefty hitter who throws right, Cleinmark went 2-for-3 against NCAA participant Maryland during the fall. She is strong and hits for power and will keep the defense on its toes with bunts and slaps. Freshman Ashton Wolf brings a different set of intangibles as a pinch runner with speed similar to Nguyen who can wreck havoc on the bases.

All four will be in Army's rotation in some role. They give DePolo options in the lineup as left-handed batters who can cause problems for the defense whether it be hitting, running or stealing.

SCHEDULE

Army's schedule is tough and heavy early on, and DePolo is hoping that the stiff competition will prepare her young team for the Patriot League. The Black Knights, picked third in the league's preseason poll, host Holy Cross (March 31 and 1 April) in their league debut, then take to the road the next two weekends to take on regular-season champion Colgate (April 7-8) followed by Bucknell (April 14-15).

The Black Knights host Lafayette (April 21-22) and defending champion Lehigh (April 28-29) in closing out their regular-season league slate. Army took three games from the Mountain Hawks in their last visit to West Point in 2010. After splitting the regular-season series, the host and top seeded Black Knights eliminated Lehigh at the tournament. The Mountains were picked first in the league's preseason poll earning eight of the 12 first-place votes

"It is almost like a new season when we start conference play," noted DePolo. "The league is going to be very similar to last year's layout. Colgate has strong pitching, Lehigh is always the team to beat, while Holy Cross, Lafayette and Bucknell have stepped up the past two years and will be tough contenders."

Army's four seniors will be looking to lead a young squad to the league's regular-season title and tournament host as the top seed in its bid to vie for the automatic NCAA berth awarded to the winner. The last time Army won the league title and trip to the NCAAs was in 2002 with a team that consisted of seven seniors, no juniors, and 14 underclassmen.

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