By Dalton Ray–
For coach Sandy Pearsall and her team, the 2016 softball season ended just like the previous 13 seasons: a trip to the NCAA Regionals. Similarly to the past 13 seasons, the Cardinals failed to go further.
Pearsall thinks the 2017 team has what it takes to get over the hump.
“This team is different because they’re willing to embrace the challenge,” Pearsall said. “The biggest key for this team is they can’t fear the mistakes, they need to just go for it. Sometimes it’s going to be great and sometimes it won’t. How we respond when we fail is more important than when we don’t.”
Ending the year with a 35-17 record, the Cardinals finished second in the ACC, 18-5, after being picked fourth in the preseason polls. Pearsall said the strong finish made the team hungrier and gaves them confidence.
A team staple over the last four years, Maryssa Becker is entering her final season. The two-way player has 48 career wins and 467 strikeouts with a career ERA of 2.15. At the plate, Becker has 156 hits, 134 RBIs and 24 home runs while batting .360. Coming off her best season as a batter, Becker is a two-time All-ACC First Team selection.
Hometown senior Morgan Meyer is a 2016 co-captain and is also coming off her best season at the plate. A solid outfielder, Meyer has committed only three errors during her time as a Cardinal. Pearsall said Meyer has joined Becker in being a verbal leader Joining Meyer in the outfield is senior Jordan McNary and redshirt junior Nicole Pufahl. A Madisonville native, McNary has 102 career starts with 92 hits and only one error while wearing the black and red. Pufahl 51 games last season, finishing the year third in home runs with six.
On track to be another Cardinal great, sophomore Megan Hensley is a true difference maker. An All-ACC Second Team pick and finalist for NFCA Freshman of the Year, Hensley led the Cardinals in home runs, 13, while batting .335 with 53 hits and 52 RBIs. As a pitcher, Hensley had an ERA of 2.48 with a record of 15-6 and 81 strikeouts.
Moving to the infield, Louisville must replace Brittany Sims and Hailey Smith. Sophomore Lillie Goetz is stepping in the shoes of Smith after having a solid freshman season. Registering a .327 average, Goetz will likelu lockdown third base. Junior Jamie Soles gets the first crack at replacing Sims while transfer sophomore Brittany Bass pushes for time.
Junior Sidney Melton is returning after taking over shortstop midway through last season. Leading the team in stolen bases and second in batting average, Melton’s quick release makes her vital part in the heart of the defense.
Returning the field after injury is senior Tiarra Sanabria. Starting 51 games during her first two seasons, Sanabria will step back into the first base spot. Jordan Vorbrink, a sophomore from Mercy Academy, is a left-handed utility player that can fill in at first or in the outfield.
Louisville received great contribution from freshmen last season in Hensley, Goetz and Vorbrink. Pearsall thinks she has another impact freshman in her four-player class.
“Celene Funke is an incredible athlete she is just really raw right now. This will be an overwhelming year for her but her potential is huge. How fast she has grown already is outstanding and her work ethic mixed with her talent is rare,” Pearsall said.
Player development plays a large role in a team’s success and how upperclassmen continue or fail to improve dictates how well a team will do. “We’re getting continued growth from our upperclassmen. If you look at where McNary and Meyer have gone to as players, they’re reaching their potential,” Pearsall said. “The same goes for Melton. She really came on at the end of last season and was an incredible shortstop.”
Pearsall admits it’s hard to not look ahead with such a difficult schedule but preaches focusing on the now.
“We have to take care of business every weekend. We need to focus on what’s in front of us now. Nearly every team on our schedule can beat us if we’re not prepared for them. We want to set a tone early in the season about who we are,” Pearsall said.
The work ethic the 2017 team has is rubbed off from seniors Smith and Sims from last season, according to Pearsall. With so many returning players Pearsall says the team is further ahead than scheduled.
“We’re more experienced so things are going smoother and because of that, we’re able to do more as a coaching staff. We’re a much more focused and closer team this season. They’ve really bought in and they want to be challenged,” Pearsall said.
Photo by Sam Draut / The Louisville Cardinal