Jan. 28, 2008
HOUSTON, Texas - The University of Houston softball program heads into the 2008 season returning 12 letterwinners from the 2007 regular season and Conference USA Softball Tournament Championship team. The Cougars finished the season with a record high 44 wins and a bid into the NCAA Championship Tournament. This year Houston is joined by five talented freshmen that join the winningest softball team in school history.
"We are very excited about our freshman class," head coach Kyla Holas said. "This fall was a big eye opener for us in evaluating their talent and developing a lineup with them in it. They each bring some great qualities to this team that are key to our success now and in the future."
Last season Houston received votes in the Top 25 three times on their way to an NCAA bid. The Cougars are looking to the returning letterwinners and incoming talent to reclaim the C-USA crown and make a return trip to the NCAA Championships.
"We are looking to use our experience from last season as a stepping stone to take this program to the next level," head coach Kyla Holas said. "Anytime you can win Championships and make post season your team's expectation level goes up. We have set our goals higher and are going to rely on our upper classmen to keep everyone's eye on the prize."
Houston touts the best pitching staff in Conference USA returning three pitchers to the lineup including two-time Conference USA Pitcher of the Year Angel Shamblin. She and Barbie Love enter their senior year and are joined by sophomore Samantha Cummings and newcomer Baillie Lott.
Shamblin was an All-C-USA first team selection last year and was named the C-USA Tournament MVP. She tops the charts in five different career record categories including era, wins, strikeouts, shutouts and complete games and ranks in the top-five in innings pitched and opponent batting average. Last season, Shamblin broke six single season records for pitching in wins (31), innings pitched (271.1), strikeouts (313), shutouts (12), opponent batting average (.179) and complete games (34).
"I look for Angel to have another great season," Holas said. "She has worked very hard this fall in her conditioning and, with the addition of assistant coach Abbie Sims, made some key form changes to improve her speed and pitches." Barbie Love and Samantha Cummings will anchor the bullpen for the season.
"I consider Barbie's changeup to be one of the best in the country," Holas said. "If she can fine tune a few pitches to go with that she can be devastating and frustrating for teams. Seeing mound time with a full fall behind her now is Samantha. Last year she ended up working mostly on fundamentals since we had such a large staff and now has spent the fall working on her pitches. If she can put all the pieces together she will be the hardest pitcher to hit against on the staff. That is a huge thing to posses."
Newcomer, Baillie Lott showed she has the ability to provide strong support for Shamblin after an 11-2 win over Texas during the 2007 fall season.
"The fall showed great promise from Baillie," Holas said. "She had a big win against Texas and showed great mound presence that game."
Houston has three strong returners in Christa Raley, Jessica Valis and Haley Valis.
Christa Raley put her name in the record books this past season moving up on the charts in career and season assists. She joined the career assists at No. 5 with 146 and had a 2007 season high assists with 96.
"Christa will have a year of experience under her now at third," Holas said, "and has set her defensive goals high."
Jessica Valis was named First Team All-C-USA as well as C-USA Player of the Year in 2007.
"The infield should be as solid as it was last year, if not better," Holas said. "Jessica returns healthy and looks to make another run for Player of the Year."
Haley Valis will look to start after emerging as a leader on the team. She has become a strong presence in the batting lineup tying for a season high nine doubles and ten homeruns and was the second in runners batted in (29).
"Haley has also returned from the fall with her injuries healed," Holas said, "and we have added some depth for her there in Angela."
Angela Spittler and Jennifer Klinkert round out the infield positions and help add depth as they enter their first year with the Cougars. Jennifer Klinkert will look to start at one of the corner positions.
"I look for Angela to get more playing time as the year goes on and she gets acclimated to second base from summer ball," Holas said. "Her biggest strength is her defense and she is going to make some great plays for us in the future. Our starting lineup change in the infield is Jennifer. She is set to play first base. This fall has been her learning time, but she has progressed well which allowed us to move Amanda to the outfield and give us a stronger lineup."
Houston returns four to the outfield in Katie Bush, Lara Lang-Galaviz, Courtney Spittler and Laurie Wagner with a pair of freshman and a former infielder joining them. Kim Nesloney takes over the outfield full-time as she enters her first year as an assistant coach.
"I look for some exciting plays in the outfield now that Kim has them fulltime," Holas said, "and a tough lineup at the plate from our outfielders."
Bush, a First Team All-C-USA member from the 2007 season, started every game last season. She finished the season with 56 putouts and has only 5 career errors. Laurie Wagner had 53 total starts last season at right field and will continue to play there along with Amanda Grote and Katy Beth Sherman.
"This fall we have played with all the combinations," Holas said, "and look to use Courtney, Casey and Lara in left, Amanda, Laurie and Katy Beth in right with Katie holding down centerfield for another year."
Grote makes the transition to right field from first base where she played last season. Her transition gives the outfield more depth and experience. She holds a .986 fielding percentage and was the second leading fielder in putouts (242) and catches (248) in the 2007 season.
The left field position will rotate between senior Courtney Spittler and underclassmen Lara Lang-Galaviz and Casey Willow.
"This is the first time we have had such depth in the outfield," Holas said. "On any day we have seven players to choose from. That is a great position for a coach to be in. We are going to be able to put the best lineup on the field now."
Elaina Nordstrom will return to the catcher's position after starting in 2007. The Second Team All-C-USA selection led the team in 2007 in putouts with 452 and leads the team in fielding percentage (.998).
"Elaina is the mainstay for us at catcher," Holas said. "She is a good receiver and great blocker. She has a great rapport with the staff. They like throwing to her which makes for a win-win situation for everyone."
Elaina was ranked in the Top 10 in seven different categories including on base percentage (.443), walks (42), fielding percentage (.998), putouts (452) and caught stealing by (13).
"She has set her goals high this year and looks to improve her throwing percentage," Holas said. "I think if she sets her mind to it and demands a lot from herself, Elaina can reach all of her goals." Along with playing right field Laurie Wagner will add depth to Nordstrom in the catchers position.
"We have moved Laurie to help back her up," Holas said, "but day in day out it is Elaina."
The Cougars will take on 11 NCAA Tournament teams from a season ago, including Women's College World Series participants DePaul, Texas A&M and Baylor in the 2008 season.
"The schedule is always a big deal for us," Holas said. "We have to make sure we try and play the best out there so when it comes selection time at the end of the year we have the best possible RPI and key wins."
The 2007 season marks the seventh consecutive season of the Houston home tournaments: Crowne Plaza Classic and Marriott Houston Hobby Invitational.
"Coming back for the first time since the realignment is DePaul a 2007 WCWS team (Feb. 15-17)," Holas said. "And we have kept our home/away series with Baylor 2007 WCWS team, Texas A&M 2007 WCWS team and ULL."
Houston has home stints against Sam Houston State in a double header on Feb. 20 followed by a face off against Texas when they take on the Longhorns in the second annual Striking Out Breast Cancer game in a double header (March 5).
Houston also heads to Fresno, Calif. for the first time to participate in the Bulldog Classic as well as take on Fresno State in a double header (March 11).
"The biggest change is our first trip to the west coast in the Bulldog Classic hosted by Fresno State," Holas said. "I felt like the girls were ready to head west and represent CUSA positively and we heard great things about Fresno as a host. I think this is the most anticipated trip of the year."
"If we want to be a consistent Top 25 team then we need to play Top 25 teams and win on a daily basis," Holas said. "I feel that we scheduled those opportunities again this year. We were able to keep our Breast Cancer Awareness game on March 5, taking Texas for the first time during the regular season in Houston. We also added Virginia Tech (March 18) and Ohio State (March 19) to the schedule from big NCAA postseason finishes last year."
For the first time in school history the Cougars will be taking on Team USA in an exhibition game in Team USA's Bound For Beijing Tour (April 8).
"We are excited to be able to play Team USA in Houston and represent this university," Holas said. "We considered this to be a once in a lifetime opportunity for us."
Conference play opens conference play at home as Houston takes on Southern Miss in a three game series starting March 21.
This should be the toughest year for CUSA since the realignment," said Holas. "Everyone has made an effort and stepped up their schedule which should boost our conference's RPI and send more than one team to the postseason. Southern Miss added a new coach and I look for them to improve quickly and make a run for the top."
Memphis comes to Houston the following weekend (March 29-30) before the Cougars head to Central Florida to take on one of the more competitive teams in C-USA.
"ECU, Central Florida and Marshall all return key players and some big seniors," Holas said, "that should make them tough to beat in CUSA."
The team will return to the Cougar Softball Stadium April 9 to take on Texas-San Antonio before heading into another three game series with conference foe, ECU (April 12-13). They round out their home stint in April with a doubleheader against Baylor on the 16th.
Houston will finish the road season with series at Tulsa (April 19-20) and UAB (April 26-27). They return home to take on non-conference rivals Louisiana-Lafayette in an April 30 doubleheader before finishing the season with a home series against UTEP (May 3-4).
"Tulsa, UAB, Memphis and UTEP all signed some great young talent," Holas said, "that when added with their upperclassmen make any team in the conference a force to be reckoned with. It is going to be a crazy and close year for the finish."