For the first time in recent history, the Idaho State softball team has trekked into unchartered territory as the Bengals were picked to finish outside the top three in the Big Sky Conference for the first time since 2012 and received no first place votes in the conference’s preseason coaches polls.
This season, the Bengals were picked to finish fourth as ISU lost a host of key players from last season.
Four-year starters Kate Marquez, lead-off hitter Michaela Taylor, clean-up hitter Maddy Hickman and ace Sophie Slagle graduated last season as ISU won over 25 games for the fourth consecutive season.
“We weren’t angry,” said senior Sarah Hayes on the preseason poll. “We brushed it off and laughed at it.”
2016 was first time in three years ISU didn’t win the Big Sky regular season title, earning the right to host the conference tournament.
ISU has yet to win a conference tournament since its breakout season in 2012.
Last season, the Bengals finished third in the conference and lost in the tournament championship game to Weber State, where former ISU power-hitter Vicky Galasso is an assistant coach.
The Bengals opened the season with a tournament hosted by UNLV which included teams such as Colorado State, UNLV and Texas State before playing in a Fresno State-hosted tournament, which is ranked 24th in the country and features Big West powerhouses Cal Poly and UC Davis.
The Bengals will also play Minnesota, Penn State and Oregon multiple time through preseason tournaments. The Ducks are ranked ninth in the nation.
The tough non-conference schedule is part of the motto “get comfortable being uncomfortable,” Head Coach Candi Letts said, “Once our team gets comfortable we switch it up…We want to always put them through adverse things so they get better at adjusting and dealing with adversity. We switch it up so they have to keep working instead of getting settled.”
Kacie Burnett, who is a three-time First Team All-Conference selection and was listed on the “Top 50 Watch List,” for the 2017 USA Softball USA Collegiate Player of the Year, and Hayes will both return for their senior seasons.
“I don’t put a set list together,” Burnett said. “I have a few things in the back of my mind. I always want to improve – my stolen base record and doing my job and getting on base for my team.”
Other returning seniors include Ashlyn Ames, Jennie Murillo and Alex Portesi.
Burnett hit .451 last season and started all 51 games in left, but her blazing speed that stole 27 bases on 32 attempts last season has prompted Letts to move Burnett to center field to replace the graduated Marquez.
Letts will also move the sure-handed Hayes from 3rd base to left field, explaining that the ball comes off the bat at a similar angle at both positions.
“Kacie plays left field like no other left fielder I’ve ever seen and I’ve had some good ones,” Letts said. “She has done a good job of adjusting. Sarah was the first one we decided to move because she sees the ball off the bat that well.”
Junior switch-hitter Haley Harrison is expected to start in right.
Harrison started three games in the outfield last season, hitting .333 in 12 at-bats.
“She is very fast and has power on the right side,” Letts said of Harrison.
First base is a three-horse race between freshmen Emma Bordenkecher, Frankie Tago and the senior Murillo to replace the power-hitting Maddy Hickman.
Another position still up in the air is catcher.
The Bengals will pitch by committee this season led by Ames along with a rejuvenated Mariah Mulcahy and freshman Harley Wells.
“We will use relief,” Letts said. “The great thing about our pitchers is they’re all different. People can’t get their timing down which is huge for pitching.”
In addition to 29 pitching appearances last season, Ames hit five home runs and drove in 45 RBI.
Letts plans to utilize both Ames’ abilities this season, saving the DP for other spots in the lineup, utilizing the new-found right-handed power.
“We still have the same speed set but we have more right-handed power,” Letts said.
Among the offensive versatility will be Hayes moving into the lead-off role while utilizing Burnett, Harris and Portesi as slappers with Ames, Aubrey Creekmore and whoever is playing first for power.
“Aubrey, you can tell there’s been that year of growth,” Letts said. “She has power.”
According to Letts, the lineup will change from game-to-game.
“I think all the newcomers have given themselves an opportunity to get into the lineup,” she said. “We’re going to change the lineups. We’re going to give everybody a chance to play without sacrificing the opportunity to win.”
With two top 25 teams in the non-conference schedule, the early part of the season will be about finding an identity, finding a lineup that works and getting better by playing through tough innings.
“We don’t want to be great now,” Letts said. “We want to compete now, but we want to be great and hitting our stride in conference.”