It was a breakout season for the Nevada softball program in 2013.
The Wolf Pack had its best season in years, the best offense in the Mountain West Conference, but fell short of contending for the conference crown.
This season, however, coach Matt Meuchel has eyes on a conference title and an appearance in the NCAA Tournament. The Wolf Pack open the season today at the Red Desert Classic in St. George, Utah, against BYU and Southern Utah.
“We had a solid season last year, one we feel we can build upon and compete for a Mountain West championship,” Meuchel said. “We have high hopes, high expectations within the framework of the program to get that done.”
Coming off a 30-23 season, the Nevada returns six starters and 17 players total. The key, however, for the Wolf Pack is for the pitching staff to compliment a ferocious offense.
“For us to do the things we want to do, we have to be consistent in the circle,” Meuchel said. “If we do that, then I think we can take that jump in the Mountain West Conference.”
Nevada’s offense pounded opposing pitching last season led by returners Sara Parsons (.317, six home runs, 41 RBI), Karley Hopkins (.392, two, 34), Jasmine Jenkins (.361, two, 26), Megan Sweet (.321, six, 29) and Erin Jones (.340, five, 32).
The glitz and glam of the club is the offense as the unit crushed opponents last season and led the conference with a team average of .310, slugging percentage (.477), runs scored (284), hits (452), RBI (268), doubles (102) and walks (179). The Pack was also tied (with SDSU) for second in home runs with 45, one behind Boise State.
While Nevada lost three key contributors from last season’s club, the returning core still gives the Pack a loaded lineup.
“With the six returning offensive players we got … they can pick up that production (lost to graduation),” Meuchel said. “I think at this point, replacing that production, especially the home runs of (Megan) Fincher, I think we are up to the task.”
One player aiming to make a difference is Nikki Orozco, a freshman outfielder from Corona, Calif.
“It’s the first time we’ve had a left-handed thrower in a while,” Mecuhel said. “It’ll be great to have that left-handed power and speed out there.”
Meuchel, though, said it is the pitching staff who must carry the load for Nevada to contended for a championship.
The Pack returns ace Karlyn Jones (17-10, 3.45 ERA, 134 strikeouts) and Megan Dortch (10-11, 4.03, 89) in the circle. Meuchel, however, will also rely on McKenna Isenberg and a healthy Bailey Brewer to push the two veterans and determine who will get the ball.
Competition, the sixth-year coach said, is creating a better atmosphere and pushing each pitcher to new heights.
“We’ve got some talent, no question,” Meuchel said. “Those people who are consistent in the circle will eat up innings. I like how they are throwing and seeing them challenge a great offense on a daily basis.”
Those fireballers must be on their game as the Mountain West welcomes two new schools — San Jose State and Utah State — to the schedule, along with tough nonconference matchups against No. 4 Michigan, BYU (twice) and Hawaii, who received votes in the preseason poll. San Jose State is no pushover as the Spartans won the Western Athletic Conference last year. Nevada, meanwhile, was picked by conference coaches to finish sixth.
“Those are all formidable teams,” Parsons said. “I think the main thing is not paying attention to the other team and focusing on ourselves.”
The staff posted ranked sixth out of seven clubs in ERA (3.99) in the conference, fifth in opposing batting average (.288), hits allowed (411) and runs allowed (254), and sixth in home runs allowed (49).
In all, the Pack will face five clubs — Michigan, BYU, Hawaii, San Diego State, SJSU, who appeared in the NCAA tournament last season. Should the Pack fall short of a conference title, winning as many games against those five may allow for an at-large selection.
“We relish those opportunities,” Meuchel said of the schedule. “Certainly there a lot of teams in the conference returning a lot of players.”