Boise State softball enters its third season of existence fresh off a third-place finish in the Western Athletic Conference. Fifteen letterwinners return from a Bronco group that won nine of its last 12 regular-season WAC games and placed third at the conference tournament. Head coach Erin Thorpe looks to carry the momentum of a strong finish in the program's second season into this year.
The 2011 squad features no seniors, but does not lack experience as eight starters are back from the third-place team of 2010. The Broncos are led by seven juniors-all beginning their third year in the program-eight sophomores and six freshmen.
In 2010, Boise State's offense became its calling card. The Broncos plated eight or more runs in 18 ballgames, while only being shutout four times. Boise State was one of just 32 teams in the country to average at least one home run per game.
"We're definitely more of a power offense-type team," Thorpe said. "That's kind of been my philosophy with starting a program. We needed to get fans and I thought we would get more fans in the seats if we had an entertaining team. We just hope to put on a show every time we're at home and it's been pretty successful for us."
The Broncos may lean on their big bats, but the entire pitching staff is back for the 2011 season and saw marked improvement as 2010 went along.
Boise State returns all four players who saw time in the circle in 2010, and added to the stable with one decorated freshman pitcher. Juniors Allie Crump and Aubray Zell saw the bulk of the action, but were aided by sophomores Ashley Collier and Lela Work who worked mostly out of the bullpen. Morgan Barnes joins the veteran group after a highly-successful prep career at Grants Pass High School (Grants Pass, Ore.).
"We have four returning pitchers who all saw time last year," Thorpe said. "They are all one year wiser and one year better. We are also looking forward to great things from Morgan. We expect all five of our pitchers will see time in the circle this year."
Crump was tabbed a preseason All-WAC selection after breaking nearly every major single-season pitching record a year ago. She pitched 170 innings in her 37 appearances, including 29 starts on her way to 16 wins. The Elk Grove, Calif., native tossed 16 complete games and struck out 130, leading Boise State in both categories for the second-straight year.
"Allie earned the starting role and really matured throughout the season," Thorpe said. "We are looking for her to come out expecting to do the same thing this year."
Zell led the Broncos with a 3.16 ERA in 2010, appearing in 29 games and making 23 starts. She finished with a 10-10 record and posted three shutouts. Work made 23 appearances, 20 in a relief situation. The Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, native burst onto the scene at the WAC Tournament. Work pitched eight innings, surrendering just two hits and zero earned runs in three games to earn a spot on the all-tournament team.
"Lela did a great job in the relief spot," Thorpe said. "We expect her to be used much more in that role this season."
Collier provided the Broncos with important depth as a freshman. She appeared in 13 games and made five starts. The Sparks, Nev., native picked up a complete-game win in her first-career start against Wichita State (March 7).
Barnes enters her first season of collegiate softball after dominating the high school ranks. She compiled a 78-11 record in the circle and struck out 884 batters in her career, leading Grants Pass to a pair of state championships.
"What we saw out of her is a real competitive edge when she gets in games," said Thorpe. "We're really hoping to see great things out of her this season."
All four Broncos to see time behind the plate in 2010 return to the team. Junior Maghan Yurek cemented her spot as the primary catcher, making 40 starts at the position. Yurek saw just 43 at-bats, seeing most of her time as a defensive specialist while she carried a .974 fielding percentage.
Sophomore Megan Harvey is back after making 15 starts at catcher before injury relegated her to a hitting role.
"Megan (Harvey) has a lot of offensive tools," Thorpe said. "She is a great on-base hitter, and she does have great power."
Junior Tazz Weatherly took on the role of back-up catcher for most of the season, but with Harvey back in the fold, will be looked to for outfield support. Sophomore Georgia Behne gives the Broncos depth behind the plate, having seen action in three games in 2010.
The 2011 Broncos feature a host of possibilities to fill out the four infield positions. Junior Kellie Caplan returns after being named second-team All-WAC in 2010, when she made 32 starts in the infield. Caplan could play up the middle or in the Bronco outfield. The dilemma for Thorpe and her staff is not an uncommon one as the Broncos will have a lot of options to draw from when filling out their line-up cards this season.
"As a third-year program, we have done a lot of our initial recruiting to seek out versatile athletes," Thorpe said. "As we get deeper into the program, we will be looking more to recruit players to take specific roles. At this point, we have intentionally signed very versatile athletes. That allows us to put the best team on the field without having to sacrifice for position limitations."
In all the uncertainty, junior Christina Capobianco will provide stability anchoring first base. Capobianco made 51 starts as a sophomore, 48 at first. She finished second on the team with 11 home runs and 42 RBI.
"We expect great things out of 'Capo,'" said Thorpe. "She has tons of potential. She is still young in her growth process as an athlete. Last year her numbers looked very similar to her freshman year, but she made great strides mentally as a sophomore. We expect her to take that next step as a team leader on and off the field this season."
Freshman Devon Bridges could also spell Capobianco at first base, while Crump may see time there as well.
"Devon came in with a lot of power potential and we are hoping she is able to make an impact this season," Thorpe said. "Allie has a lot of offensive potential. She hit for average last year and she has some power."
The biggest void left by the class of 2010 is two-time all-region selection Kathy Cox at third base. Cox started 110 of the Broncos' 113 games during her career at third as she led the team in batting average, hits, home runs and RBI both seasons in the blue and orange. It will be a team effort to replace her, and the Broncos have a number of players who could step into the role.
Possibilities abound at the hot corner where fans could see junior Kelly Sweeney, sophomore Jessica Kraft or freshmen Mackzenie Whyte, Trisha Nobriga or Jessica O'Donnell.
The middle of the infield will see many of the same names which are choices at third base, with sophomores Vanessa Alvarez and Holly Bourke additional options at second base. Alvarez made 47 starts as a freshman, 45 as the designated player, and became the Broncos' regular clean-up hitter.
"Vanessa had a great freshman campaign," Thorpe said, "and we are expecting a better season with more consistent at bats."
Bourke finished the season strong as she picked up WAC Hitter of the Week honors in the final regular season weekend. She hit .316 for the year making most of her starts in right field. Alvarez and Bourke tied for third on the team with 66 total bases.
Seven different Broncos made starts in the outfield in 2010, and six of them return this season. Boise State also added two freshmen to the outfield fold for the 2011 campaign. The corps includes sophomore Brittany Barcellos and freshman Natalie Kelley in addition to multi-position players Bourke, Bridges, Caplan, Collier and Weatherly.
Despite the number of options, developing a regular outfield alignment is a priority for Thorpe.
"We are hoping to find a consistent outfield line-up to build some continuity and allow for us to reach our potential," Thorpe said. "With most of our outfielders playing multiple positions it has led to a lot of movement over the last two seasons."
Most of the Broncos' speed rests in the outfield. The returning Broncos who played in the outfield accounted for 46 of the 51 stolen bases Boise State has coming back in 2011.
"Using our speed is something we are conscious of," Thorpe said. "We went from 14 stolen bases in 2009 to 77 last season. We are looking to grow on that."
The Broncos will embark on their second season with a full Division I schedule in 2011, highlighted by 13 games against 2010 NCAA Tournament participants. Three of Boise State's opponents advanced all the way to the Women's College World Series.
"We are excited about a lot of our contests this season," Thorpe said. "We are going to get tested early, but that helped us last year. We need to start stronger this year. We need to see strides in some of our statistical categories like winning percentage and RPI. We would really like to see our team get to the postseason, and the schedule we put together can help us do that."
Boise State begins its season at the Long Beach State Kickoff Tournament, Feb. 12-13, against Loyola Marymount and Long Beach State. It is the first of six early-season tournaments featuring the Broncos this season. Boise State will open its home slate with the second-annual SpringHill Suites Invitational, March 4-6, at Mountain Cove Softball Field.
"Tournaments are important," Thorpe said. "We get a lot of different looks, and have the opportunity to play games against quality teams from conferences that some consider stronger than the WAC."
The WAC will be no slouch in 2011, however. Defending champion Hawai'i returns six starters from its historic run to the Women's College World Series. Fresno State took second place in the conference last season and earned a postseason berth. The Bulldogs' 2-2 showing at the Los Angeles Regional continued their streak of advancing to each of the NCAA's 29 postseasons.
The Broncos will travel to Hawai'i April 22-23, and host Fresno State April 29-30, in the final regular-season homestand of the season. Boise State will start conference play at home March 25-26, against Nevada.