The 2013 season marks the 20th anniversary of the University of La Verne's trip to the Division III Softball World Series in 1993. During that magical year, the Leopards rode the arm of pitching ace Stacey Mays, who garnered National Player of the Year honors to help put the Leos on the softball map.
Twenty years later, pitching appears to be the theme for this year's edition of Leopard softball as the squad has brought in a talented group of hurlers to keep pace in the competitive SCIAC.
Sixth-year head coach Julie Smith believes due to a strong core of pitchers, the pieces are in place for a return to postseason play. "I expect us to be the mix to make it to the SCIAC Tournament and possibly beyond," Smith says. "With our core returners and our pitching staff, we're capable of a very strong season."
Expected to lead the Leopard pitching staff this season is returnee Rebecca Ho along with a pair of newcomers in junior Rachel Hong and freshman Katherine Kibbe. La Verne will also be bolstered on the mound by the presence of freshman lefty Ashley Moore.
Ho enjoyed a solid debut in limited action, leading the team in strikeouts in just 52 innings of work. Among her 2012 highlights included a 14-strikeout performance against Whittier last April. "Rebecca is really looking good thus far and has the tools to be an All-Conference level pitcher if she can remain healthy," Smith says. "We're looking forward to her having an outstanding season."
Both Hong and Kibbe should provide a stabilizing force in the circle to fortify the Leopard rotation. Additionally, the duo provide multiple threats as they will be regulars in the lineup on non-pitching days.
At the plate, the Leos will look to compensate for the graduation of All-Region selections Dee Dee Burns and Tara Allis as well with the steady four-year starter (and current graduate assistant coach) Daryn Schiveley at the catcher position.
Leading the way will be junior Raven Freret, a two-time All-Region selection who was among the conference leaders in batting average (.458), runs batted in (41) and slugging percentage (.653). In addition, junior Jackie Duran, a 2012 First Team All-SCIAC honoree, should also be a big contributor to the Leopard attack after hitting .369 last season. Other returnees include junior Candice Nunez along with sophomores Danielle Vela, Laura Olson and Breeanna De La Rosa.
Vela had a solid freshman campaign, hitting.349 as a rookie as the starting second baseman. Nunez was one of seven Leopard players to start in all 36 contests a year ago and should continue to produce from the third base position.
This season, Olson – the team leader in pitching victories in 2012 - will make the transition from the circle to the outfield. De La Rosa could also see additional time in the outfield.
The Leopards also welcome freshman Mackenzie Dutton, who should make an immediate impact both as an outfielder and a utility player. Other newcomers include transfers Taylor Williams (middle infielder) and Melisa Sponholz (catcher) along with freshmen freshman Jessica Morales (second base/outfield). All three are expected to make significant contributions this season.
A potent non-conference schedule includes early dates against Arizona Christian (Feb. 1) and Whitworth (Feb. 2). The Leopards will also face perennial power Linfield in a home doubleheader on March 20.
La Verne's SCIAC opener will come against Cal Lutheran as the two teams will face off four times in a three-day span.
The conference race continues to be competitive with the likes of Redlands, Claremont-Mudd-Scripps along with emerging programs of Whittier and Pomona-Pitzer. Add to the mix of Chapman, a perennial NCAA Tournament entrant through the late 2000's, and the ever-improving landscape of the SCIAC appears to be as strong as ever.
That said, the Leopards will look to challenge for conference supremacy heading to the 2013 campaign. "Our goals continue to be the same," says Smith. "We'll work to compete for a SCIAC Championship and a berth in the NCAA Tournament."