BY JESSICA FALCONER | The Statesman With first-year head coach Jen Walter, the Bulldog softball team has high expectations early on in the 2016 season.
UMD (1-3) traveled to Bentonville, Arkansas this past weekend to kick off the season with a slate of non-conference games as part of the Eight State Classic. While it took a few games for the Bulldog bats to heat up, they found their stride in an 8-7, extra inning win over Missouri Southern.
Sophomore Becky Smith, who started in the infield last season, drove home the winning run on a sacrifice fly.
“This weekend is to see where we’re at,” Walter said.
The Eight State Classic was a good measuring stick for the Bulldogs. Walter has clear goals in mind this season for her team, which was voted to finish No. 5 in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference this season.
“Our goal down the road is to compete for a national championship,” Walter said. “We have a really great nucleus here, and this year is going to be a year where we lay the foundation for being a consistent top team in the NSIC and in the region.”
Typically when a program gets a new head coach it becomes a time of transition. Yet having coached the softball team at nearby St. Scholastica for the past 16 years, Walter already knew some of the players and administrators at UMD, making her comfortable with her new team early on.
“I never thought that I would ever want to wear the maroon and gold,” Walter said of making the trip down college street to join the Bulldogs last fall.
The team played a few exhibition games in the fall and has had many practices since. The team is at a point where they need to see where they’ll stack up against their other regional competition.
Losing one senior from last year’s team, infielder Jordan Rice, the Bulldogs have a lot to build on, including a group of five current seniors.
One of those seniors, Cayli Sadler, has been UMD’s top pitcher for the past several seasons. UMD’s anchor in the circle, she’s thrown 487.2 innings in her career thus far, and will continue to be an important piece of the puzzle for UMD. The senior threw in three of the Bulldogs’ four games in Bentonville, AK.
UMD also returns Hannah Schmoll, who as a freshman last season had the highest batting average on the team (.406).
The team acquired 5 new freshmen this year. Walter thinks that catcher Hannah Bloch will be one to step up this season.
“She has a great arm, confident and swings the bat well. We’re excited to see what she can do,” Walter said.
Walter has high hopes for many of the new freshman. Although after a fall exhibition schedule and practices during the offseason, they don’t seem like first-year players to Walter.
“It doesn’t really feel like we have any freshman on the team,” Walter said. “They are freshman on the field, but have already gotten to know each other for a couple months. They’re a pretty close team.”
Overall Walter has high expectations for this season. She hopes the team will be in the top three teams in the NSIC with Winona and Mankato.
Before they begin conference play, the Bulldogs have 15 more nonconference bouts at both the West St. Paul Sports Dome and on a trip to Clermont, Florida.