For some, having a young team can be a bit of an issue. Not so for the University of Utah softball team. Led by an infield that is all-underclassman most of time, the Utes have shown they are about to become a force to be reckoned with in the highly competitive Pac-12 conference.
The skill and talent of the young players was recognized this week as four freshman walked away with all-conference honors. The group was led by freshman second baseman Hannah Flippen, who made the All Pac-12 First Team. She was joined by Bridget Castro, Anissa Urtez and Sammy Cordova. Upperclassman Kate Dickman, a junior left fielder with a .415 batting average, also made the list with her third straight nod from the conference with a Pac-12 Honorable Mention recognition. Castro, Urtez and Cordova, as well as Flippen, all made the Pac-12 All-Freshmen Team.
"Our freshman kicked butt in the Pac-12," said Utah head coach Amy Hogue. "All of that is really exciting. Every team has gotten better. I really like our chances. Not just for next year, but from now on."
The awards came on the heels of a successful couple of weeks for the Utes, who finished the season on an eight-game winning streak. Finishing with a winning record of 31-24 overall, the women were able to win all eight games in their final homestand. Among those W’s, was the Utes first-ever sweep of a Pac-12 Conference team with three straight wins over California May 1-3. After losing on the road to Arizona the week before, Hogue said the team decided that they were going to win out the rest of the schedule. The Utes were led on the mound in those wins by one of their freshman phenoms, Sammy Cordova, who got all five of their wins in the final week of play. In those games, Cordova only allowed seven earned runs on 24 hits, throwing 25.2 innings with nine strikeouts. Her play was so good against Cal that she received the Pac-12 Pitcher of the Week honor on May 5.
"It felt good to hear that, but I’m staying hungry," Cordova said. "It felt good to finally get that."
According to Hogue, Cordova has the best numbers on their pitching staff and only got better as the season went on. This was a notable feat, considering that conference play was so much more difficult than the games leading up to it. Hogue said many underclassmen would be daunted by the level of talent faced in Pac-12 play, but it only seemed to make Cordova a better player.
"It goes to show that that kid just grew and grew," Hogue said. "She seems to get better. She did nothing but improve."
Cordova said a lot of it was the mental training she had before coming to Utah and having also played against some of the Pac-12 players prior to college. Still, she admits playing in this conference is a "whole different level."
"It’s just trusting myself," she said.
The Utes play in one of the most difficult conferences in the country, led by UCLA, who is ranked No. 4 in the country, and Oregon at No. 5, so both wins and awards in the conference mean a lot to them.
"They don’t have to give any awards in our conference. They could given them all to Oregon. They could give them all to UCLA," Hogue said.
With all of this young talent, Hogue feels that the Utes are on the verge of making some noise in the conference in the next year or so. Other teams will lose some of their top players to graduation this year, but Utah is just starting to emerge.
"We’re really close to exploding," Hogue said.
Because of the high degree of competition, the Utes don’t always see their progress and improvement in wins and losses, but Cordova feels that she and her teammates are making the transition well and getting better with every game.
"We’re playing with some of the top players in the country," she said. "You’ve got to find your love for the game and dig deep and push for every game."
The Utes also finish the season with the record for turning the most double plays in the nation with a total of 46, twice the number for Stanford, who is second in the conference. This is the second year in a row where the Utes were one of the leading teams in the nation with double plays and Hogue is confident the record will stand this year. It’s a mixed blessing though. Hogue would like to see that record drop next year because her team is not allowing hits. Without opponents getting hits off the Utes, then there is no need for a double play.
"I hope we break it this year and then never again," said Hogue.
Even with all the awards and records though, the Utes were not selected for postseason play. Despite being in one of the best softball conferences in the country and an RPI (Rating Percentage Index) ranking of 61, the selection process for the Women’s College World Series left Utah sitting at home this week. In the Series, 64 teams are selected – one selected by each of the 32 conferences, and then 32 more. Conferences can send their conference tournament champion, if they hold a tournament, or they can send the winner in conference season play. Other teams in the state that the Utes have beaten handily, or come close to beating, are in the tournament, including Utah Valley University, BYU and Southern Utah University. The Utes are ranked higher than all three of those teams nationally, so it is hard for Utah to watch them play, but Hogue says they understand the process of selection.
"We are the better team out of the three and everything shows that, but that’s not how the tournament is set up," Hogue said.
It was no easy pill for the players to swallow either.
"It was definitely difficult, especially since we’ve beaten a lot of those teams going in," Cordova said. "We will definitely be there next year."
Hogue already has her sights set on next year with a plan to not only get into the tournament, but to also amass some wins and show the nation the capabilities of the Utes. The team has also set a goal of hosting one of the regional games in the tournament at their brand new stadium. The Utes RPI has gone from a 175 in 2009 to 61 this year, so Hogue knows that they are moving in the right direction. The players seem to know it too, especially the award-winning freshman who are proud of this season and determined to make their presence known next year.
"Even though we didn’t make postseason, we ended with a bang," Cordova said. "It felt really good with so much team chemistry. We all have a love for the game. We all have passion for it."