By Justin Stephenson
In U of L Athletics, there is a common pattern of up and down. After winning the Sugar Bowl and being on the rise, we lost our football coach Charlie Strong. After winning the national championship, we lost our best rebounder, Chane Behanan. And after posting a 47-13 record last season, the U of L softball team loses three of their top five sluggers in Katelyn Mann, Alicja Wolney and Jordan Trimble. Even in the wake of such important departures, these Cardinals refuse to be grounded; in fact they hope to soar into this season just as good as ever.
“We hope to capture the AAC crown this season, as well as win the conference tournament; I also think that making a deep run in the tournament, at least to the super regionals, is totally possible,” Head Coach Sandy Pearsall said.
But, as is often the case in sports, winning is a privilege, not a right. Dictating from the Cards’ strength of schedule, wins will be at a premium this season.
“We face a lot of stiff competition this season,” Pearsall said. “Just look at the first half of our season before conference play; we have number 18 Missouri and UNC on the road and then we have two huge home games facing two softball powerhouses, number four Michigan and Wisconsin. Not to mention number nine Kentucky, who has a phenomenal squad this season.”
So who will be the anchor in this avalanche of adversity; who will step up this season to guide this team along the winding and narrow road that defines this team’s success?
“I am looking for production particularly from Katie Keller as well as our shortstop Whitney Arion, I also see Maggie Ruckenbrod and Taner Fowler playing a huge part for us this season on the offensive side of the ball.”
And why wouldn’t they play a huge part? With the departure of last year’s seniors, Keller is the unquestioned statistical leader on offense. The three-time All Big East and two-time All-American leads the team in slugging percentage at a whopping .709. She also leads the team in home runs with 12, hits with 76 and runs with 62. She is also tied for the most doubles on the team with 18 and has the most walks with 32.
Next up on the mound is senior catcher and All Big East selection Maggie Ruckenbrod, whose 59 hits, .551 slugging percentage, 22 walks and 41 runs batted in is good for second on the team. Senior Catcher and two time All Big East selection Hannah Kiyohara paces the team in batting average, as she is right behind Keller hitting at a clip of .342. She is second in walks with 22 and third in total bases with 63.
Rounding out the top tier is junior shortstop Whitney Arion, who is arguably the Lady Cards’ most athletic player and undeniably their most clutch.
Her game winning RBI against Longwood, her game-winning three run home run against Pitt as well as her late-inning heroics against a tenacious Hofstra squad has her earning the respect of players and fans alike. Her 33 runs, 51 hits and 12 doubles are top three on the team. She also has the second most bases on the team with 86.
“On the defensive side of the ball, we have a solid front in Maggie Ruckenbrod and Whitney Arion, as well as a reliable stopper in Katie Keller,” Pearsall explained. “We also have four pitchers this year which is a luxury. Caralisa Connell and Rachel LeCoq definitely have the experience by far, but Tiarra Sanabria and Maryssa Becker will definitely have to step up and help us out with innings.”
Along with being a veritable offensive threat, Ruckenbrod doesn’t mind stepping up to make some stops. As indicated by her 340 chances, a team high, as well as her 290 putouts, which is also a team high. She also leads the team in fielding percentage at 98.8 percent. Another dynamo on defense is senior shortstop Katie Keller. Keller leads the team in assists with 114 and leads the team in double plays with 14.
The pitching staff is led by senior and All Big East selection Rachel LeCoq, who posted an astounding 2.12 earned run average last season, holding opponents to an even more incredulous 1.56 ERA during conference play. She also held the opposition to a grand total of three stolen base attempts last year, resulting in a team low .277 percent on stolen base attempts. She leads the team in shutouts with nine and in saves with three.
Coming out of the bullpen is senior and three-time All Big East selection Caralisa Connell, who leads the team in winning percentage at .833 and in strikeouts with 209. She also posted a team low for the season in doubles with 19 and triples with three.
With their one year in the AAC the softball team has their chance to leave their U of L mark on the American Conference, hopefully winning it in its inaugural season.
The Cards open up their newly-renovated Ulmer Stadium against Northern Kentucky on Friday, Feb. 21 at 2:00 pm.