BETHLEHEM, Pa. – The 2012 season proved to be another banner year for the Lehigh softball program, as the Mountain Hawks won their league-best 12th Patriot League championship and advanced to the NCAA regional tournament for the seventh time in nine seasons. Lehigh lost an exceptional quartet of seniors to graduation, but with a strong returning nucleus and a quality freshman class the Mountain Hawks firmly believe they will be in the mix for another league crown in 2013.
Head coach Fran Troyan enters his 18th season with six returning All-Patriot League selections including a two-time Patriot League Tournament MVP and the league’s preseason Player of the Year and Pitcher of the Year.
“It’s comforting to know that we have our entire pitching staff and all of our catchers back, so that’s a known quantity going into things,” Troyan said. “Were trying to pace them for the end of the year and they’re progressing nicely.
Troyan continued, “We’re very young at a lot of positions. We know we’re going to have some issues early in the season. We’re we’ve been working on a lot of things, but you can’t really work on things until you get outside in game situations. We’re at a point where things are progressing nicely and we’re getting where we need to be.”
Pitching continues to be paramount in college softball and the Mountain Hawks enter the season with two of the top hurlers in the Patriot League in senior Becca Bliss and sophomore Emily Bausher. Bliss led Lehigh in wins in 2012 and was exceptional in the Patriot League regular season, going 10-0 with a 0.57 ERA in league games. She continued her dominance in the Patriot League tournament shutting out Army on consecutive days (a four-hitter and a two-hitter) en route to earning tournament MVP honors for the second straight season.
Bausher gives Lehigh a pair of aces in the pitcher’s circle following an outstanding freshman campaign that included 17 wins, a league-low 1.78 earned run average and a team-best 195 strikeouts. The New Jersey native also contributed to Lehigh’s title run with a two-hit shutout of rival Lafayette in the Mountain Hawks’ postseason opener, as Lehigh became the first team to win the Patriot League tournament without allowing a run.
“It was a very friendly competition last year to see who was going to be number one,” Troyan said. “We honestly rotated between Becca and Emily the entire season. We’ll start out with that and the other pitchers will be in the mix as well. We’re looking at everything new but we have a pretty good idea of what Becca and Emily can do competitively. That’s nice to know going into this season.”
Behind Bliss and Bausher, the Mountain Hawks have quality depth in juniors Ashley Quigley and Kelsey Lee. Quigley led Lehigh in strikeouts as a freshman in 2011, while Lee allowed just three runs in nine appearances in the circle last season.
The other end of Lehigh’s outstanding battery is senior catcher Liz Lucas, the Patriot League’s Preseason Player of the Year. In addition to working with the Mountain Hawks’ pitching staff, Lucas will be counted upon to be the top run producer in the middle of the Lehigh lineup. A career .343 hitter, Lucas has averaged seven home runs and 41 RBI in her first three seasons and enters 2013 one home run shy of the Lehigh career record.
“The most important thing for Liz this year is just for her to enjoy things,” Troyan said. “If she plays with a sense of joy and takes things for what they’re worth and not overthinking them, she can have a tremendous year. She has really grown as a person here and I’ve seen a lot of growth between her junior and senior seasons. She’s on the cusp of having a tremendous senior year.”
Behind Lucas, junior Jess Long and sophomore Brandi Hawkins will vie for time.
In the outfield, Lehigh returns two of its three starters with seniors Rosie Roessel in center and Kristen Mitchell in right. The speedy Roessel will likely be counted upon to set the table at the top of the Mountain Hawks’ batting order, while Mitchell, one of the heroes of Lehigh’s championship-clinching win over Army, will be one of three captains along with Bliss and Lucas. In left field, junior Kristin Taft and freshman MacKenzie Velasquez will likely compete for time.
“MacKenzie Velasquez and Kristin Taft are battling for that left field position and there are other players who are in the mix battling in the outfield,” Troyan explained. “There will be a little more experimentation with lineups than we have done in the past. As a coaching staff, you don’t know what your best option may be until you can experiment a little bit.”
Lehigh’s infield was the hardest hit by graduation with the loss of three starters, including four-time All-Patriot League selections Jen Colquhoun at shortstop and Julie Fernandez at first base. Eight players are in the mix to fill the four infield spots with a number of the infield candidates able to contribute in the outfield as well if necessary.
At first base, sophomore Cassie Waggy will compete with freshman Jessica Calvini. Waggy was an All-Patriot League selection at designated player after batting .320 with 26 RBI. Freshman Morgan Decker will compete for time at third base along with senior Jacqi Kennelly. Up the middle, sophomore Emma Capetz, a second team All-League selection at second base last year, moves to shortstop where she will compete with freshman Carissa Zito. Junior Lizzy Odren returns at second base along with speedy freshman Alexis Watanabe.
“A number of those infielders, depending on how things shake out, they may be put in the outfield a little bit, although all the outfielders are doing really pretty well too,” Troyan said. “A challenge for me is trying to come up with the right mix and we’re not sure where it’s going to go but we may end up playing a few more players on a routine basis than we’ve had in the past because I feel like we have better depth than we’ve had in the past.”
The Mountain Hawks’ schedule will once again be challenging, with three early-season tournaments and a total of five games against teams that competed at the NCAA Regionals a year ago. The midweek schedule features doubleheaders with regional powers Fordham and Hofstra to prepare for the always challenging Patriot League slate.
“Like every year, our goal is to try to be as distinctive in the region as possible,” Troyan said. “What that ultimately means, we’re really not quite sure, but we have Fordham on the schedule again. We’re playing Notre Dame and a Hofstra team that is nationally ranked. We’re playing some pretty strong schools and obviously our goal is to qualify for the Patriot League tournament, to host the Patriot League tournament and to win the Patriot League tournament. From there, if we’re lucky enough for that to happen, we’ll see where the chips fall.”
The Mountain Hawks will open the 2013 season on Friday when they meet Liberty at the Pirate Invitational in Greenville, N.C. First pitch for Lehigh’s season-opening tilt is set for 10 a.m. Lehigh will also face host East Carolina Friday at 2:30 p.m.