Originally Published: March 14, 2012
AP PhotoGraham Hays empties his notebook, looking back at the week that was and the week to come.

UVa, Bama and UF make statements in league play

By Graham Hays

Let's look at some notes from the week that was in softball, ones that are hopefully devoid of any mentions of bubbles, seeds or bracketology.

Staking a claim in ACC: Granted, there was limited competition when it came to the most impressive performance in a conference series last week, but Virginia's three-game sweep on the road against Georgia Tech might have taken top honors if it was competing for nationwide distinction, let alone within the league. The Cavaliers missed a previous opportunity to make a statement -- dropping games against Syracuse, Michigan and Oregon in the Citrus Classic -- but rolled over the ACC preseason favorites.

With games against Fresno State, Oklahoma and Michigan, among others, in this week's Judi Garman Classic in California and a three-game series against Florida State the following week, it won't take long to get a sense of just how serious a contender Virginia is this season. The Cavaliers also got a pinch-hit, two-run home run from Kennedy Byxbee in the finale against Georgia Tech, giving the senior her first career home run and one of the most oddly impressive lines in the country. In five plate appearances, she has two hits, two walks, a hit-by-pitch and five RBIs.

SEC opening act: Georgia and Tennessee will have every opportunity to book hotels in Oklahoma City for the Women's College World Series, but Alabama and Florida did what favorites do during the first week of conference play.

After sweeping a midweek doubleheader on the road against a vastly improved Mississippi State team, Florida went to Knoxville and took two of three from Tennessee. The teams traded 1-0 wins at either end of the series, with Lady Vols ace Ellen Renfroe striking out 15 in a three-hitter in the opener and Florida freshmen Alyssa Bache and Lauren Haeger teaming up to blank the Lady Vols in the finale. The Gators' struggle to get their bats going during much of the week can be partly attributed to the pitching they faced. It's also an indication that the loss of catcher Brittany Schutte, who's out indefinitely after suffering a broken jaw earlier this month, is about as significant a loss as any team has faced this side of Baylor losing Whitney Canion.

Two names to track: Kelsey Horton and Bailey Castro. If Horton continues to hit like she has to this point and Castro is healthy enough to get regular at-bats after injuries slowed her debut, the middle of the order should hold together.

• Alabama swept its three-game series at Kentucky and then traveled across the country to beat Oregon in Eugene on Tuesday night. I'll mention Jackie Traina here, but she could just as easily take up real estate in the player of the year watch to the right. Her nine-inning complete game in the opener against the Wildcats and 10-strikeout, three-hitter against the Ducks are the signs you want to see in evaluating her maturation into a championship-caliber ace.

Aces coming in out of the cold: It seems unlikely this will be anything but a long spring as Utah spends its first season as a member of the Pac-12, but as league play looms, it's also true that no pitcher in the conference has more strikeouts than Utah's Generra Nielson. And it's not even close. The senior has thrown the second-most innings of any Pac-12 pitcher, trailing only Teagan Gerhart (it's rumored she gets her mail delivered to the circle), but Nielson is dominating hitters with 171 strikeouts and just 23 walks in her 111.2 innings. The former JC All-American struck out 7.7 batters per seven innings last season, her first with the Utes after two seasons at the College of Southern Idaho. This season it's 10.7 batters per seven innings.

Meanwhile, Minnesota is 17-6 under second-year coach Jessica Allister, who it seems deserves some credit for keeping on pitching coach Piper Ritter on the staff when she took over. Or maybe the credit all goes to sophomore Sara Moulton, but whatever the case, the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year is avoiding any jinx in her second season. Moulton no-hit Florida Atlantic last week, her second no-hitter of the season, and has 158 strikeouts and 27 walks in 109 innings. The Gophers didn't give her the ball when they played Arizona State, but she did strike out 10 in a 5-2 loss against Georgia and 10 more in a four-hit win against Notre Dame.

Q&A with Boise State's Erin Thorpe

By Graham Hays

Boise State isn't going to earn many national headlines in this sport. The Broncos are 15-10 through the first month of this season; that puts them seven games above .500 overall over the past four seasons. That's significant because those are the only four seasons in Boise State softball history. The Broncos open their home schedule this weekend with a tournament that includes Idaho State, Minnesota, Portland State and Utah State. I caught up with Broncos coach Erin Thorpe at the Cathedral City Classic in late February to talk about building a program from scratch.


Graham Hays: When does a new program stop being a new program?
Erin Thorpe: We're just trying to improve upon every year as it comes. As long as we're still improving, I still see us as new and still taking steps. Until we're satisfied with what we do, we're still going to feel like we're a new program and we still have work to do. So we're hoping that last year of a new program is going to be this year.

GH: That first day on the job when you're first hired, how daunting is that blank slate?
ET: It's actually great. I'm a business major, did all that kind of stuff, so this is like a business for me. This is starting a new business, starting over from scratch. It was a great challenge. I came in looking forward to it, got all my ducks in a row -- I'm a very task-oriented type of person.

GH: What was that first sales pitch to kids to come to a program that didn't actually exist?
ET: Create a vision in my mind and absolutely sell them on it. Sell them on me as a coach, sell them on my competitiveness, sell them on just how competitive we're going to be as a staff and bringing the right type of kids in to start this program. It goes with the Boise State mentality, too, just blue collar, ready to work.

GH: Aubrey Zell (9-6, 1.82 ERA this season) started the first game in program history, and she's still here as a senior. How did you come by her and what has she meant to the program?
ET: We got Aubrey really late. We got her in the fall of her senior year. We were really impressed with her. She's a thumber, and when you're a thumber, you need to learn how to pitch and learn how to use what you have and mix it up, mix speeds and mix locations. … She's continued to learn every single year.

GH: Are you targeting kids like that, who maybe don't have the whole athletic profile, the five-tool package, but have skills that you can use and you can build on?
ET: We're starting to recruit more of the mainstream, higher-level athletes that other programs are going after, but we were absolutely looking to fill our roster with those types of kids that want to come in, that want to really work hard, that want to prove something. I think we've been able to grow as quickly as we have because a majority of girls on our roster felt they were left behind and had something to prove. … We're getting more of those kids that other people are recruiting. Now we have to train them how to sit on the bench and how to be a good teammate. We're doing our best with that transition, but we're definitely in that transitional period.


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