By Dalton Ray —
Softball’s streak of making 15 consecutive NCAA tournaments was snapped last season after going 31-19, the lowest win total since 2008.
Coach Sandy Pearsall enters her 18th season in the Cardinal dugout with an underclass-heavy team.
If U of L is to jump back into the postseason, a strong season from junior Megan Hensley is needed.
As a freshman, Hensley led the team in home runs, second in RBIs and went 15-6 as a pitcher. Injuries derailed Hensley as a sophomore, leading to a drop in all major statistical categories.
Hensley will be the go-to pitcher along with playmaker at the plate this season.
Sophomore Sydney Warinner is the only returning pitcher, but a season-ending injury cut her freshman season short.
Junior college transfer Darrianne Hale will serve time at first base and the mound. Last season, Hale went 6-0 with a 1.87 ERA as a pitcher.
Freshman Danielle Watson could be the newcomer of the season. She was a three-time all-state select in Indiana. Watson had an unheard of 11 no-hitters during her high school career.
Louisville’s bullpen will be much deeper than 2017, with six pitchers walking into 2018.
Redshirt senior Nicole Pufahl had a career season in 2017. An All-ACC Second Team select, Pufahl had career highs in batting average (.360), RBIs (46) and home runs (eight).
Hale said when she first transferred to U of L, she could tell Pufahl was the leader of the team.
“When (Pufahl) is out on the field, she will hold you accountable. She’ll tell you when you do something good and when you need to pull your head of out your butt, she’ll tell you that too,” Hale said.
Redshirt junior Sidney Melton missed last season with an ACL injury. Prior to going down, Melton earned All-ACC tournament honors as a sophomore. She led the team in runs (43) and stolen bases (15) in 2016 and adds a huge boost to the infield by returning healthy.
When Melton went down, Caitlin Ferguson stepped into the shortstop position and recorded 40 starts. Part of the ACC All-Freshman team, Ferguson will now step into third base.
Senior Jamie Soles made 41 starts at second base last season but will need to cut down on errors (10 last season) to help shore up the defense. Louisville finished No. 233 nationally in fielding percentage in 2017 thanks to 76 team errors.
Another senior, Jenna Jordan, settles behind the plate for U of L with 83 career starts. A strong defensive catcher, Jordan only has five career errors.
The lone new face in the infield is freshman Kyra Snyder who plays first base and pitches. She had a soaring high school career at Mission Viejo in Lake Forest, California, winning a pair of California Interscholastic Federation titles.
Junior Blaire Bass moved from the infield to the outfield during the offseason and has found a home in left field. Only her second season at U of L, Bass started her career at Auburn.
Right field could be a revolving door early in the season, but expect sophomore Celene Funke to tame the spot soon. She made 33 appearances last season.
Another pair of names to keep an eye on is senior Alison Szydlowski (38 starts last year at catcher, third base or designated player) and junior Madison Cousineau (catcher, Mississippi State transfer).
Lousiville finished fourth in the ACC last season, going 14-8 in conference. ACC coaches slotted the Cardinals at fourth in the preseason poll behind favorite No. 9 Florida State, North Carolina and Notre Dame.
Pearsall’s 2016 team surprised the ACC by finishing second in the league and the 2018 team has a similar makeup.
If the bullpen can be serviceable, Hensley gets back to 2016 form and Pufahl continues her strong play from her junior campaign, Louisville could be knocking on the door atop of the ACC.
You can follow Dalton Ray on Twitter @dray5477.
File photo / The Louisville Cardinal