2011 Iowa Softball Preview

Feb. 10, 2011

Editor’s Note: The following first appeared in the University of Iowa’s Hawk Talk Daily, an e-newsletter that offers a daily look at the Iowa Hawkeyes, delivered free each morning to thousands of fans of the Hawkeyes worldwide.

IOWA CITY, Iowa — The University of Iowa softball program enters a new era in 2011, as Marla Looper takes over the reigns as head coach of the Hawkeyes. Looper inherits six starters and a total of 11 letterwinners from a squad that finished 25-23 overall and 10-9 in the Big Ten Conference a season ago.

The first year head coach is looking to build on the program’s rich history to return it to the pinnacle of year’s past.

“When I decided to take the step into a head coaching realm, I didn’t want to go to a place that would be a stepping stone,” said Looper, who spent the past 11 seasons as an assistant at the University of Texas. “I felt this program was in a good position, and I like the challenge of taking over a program that is pretty good and trying to take it back to the pinnacle of where it used to be.”

Looper’s expectations for her Hawkeyes are clear and precise. She expects her squad to be one of the hardest working teams in the country, while “leaving it all on the field” each and every day.

“When we get out in games, I expect our players to leave it all out on the field,” said Looper. “We don’t ever want to look back and say – oh, I could have, should have or wish I would have.

“We need the grit and determination to finish the game, not just start it. I would put our team on the field to outwork someone any day.

“Thus far, our team cohesiveness has been very strong, and they like to work and learn and they’ve been extremely open minded. Because of that, we’re going to be better in May and June than we were in August.”

After the graduation of Amanda Zust, the Hawkeyes’ pitching staff will be young, featuring a pair of underclassmen in sophomore Chelsea Lyon and freshman Kayla Massey.

“I don’t know that I am going to put an ace on the table,” said Looper. “I think they’ll both be our aces. They both bring a completely different aspect to the mound, as they’re different pitchers. One is more finesse, one is more power.

“One month, one might be hot, one month the next one might be. They’re both going to see quite a bit of playing time, and they are both very vital to our success.”

During her true freshman season, Lyon posted nine victories for the Hawkeyes, while finishing with a 2.95 earned run average with 48 strikeouts. The Broken Arrow, Okla., native started 14 games in Black and Gold, where she tallied five complete games. Lyon was nearly unhittable during a month stretch during her freshman campaign, as she did not allow an earned run from March 18 through April 14.

“Chelsea is going to play a vital role with a small staff,” said Looper. “She’s built some strength and is gaining speed, while increasing her movement. Her biggest improvement from last year is putting the ball where we want it, which makes it a little more challenging on the offense.”

Massey comes to Iowa City from Foothill Ranch, Calif., where she was an ESPN Third Team all-American as a senior after posting a 0.32 ERA. The right hander finished with a single season school record 250 strikeouts in 2010 to bump her career total to 897 strikeouts, which was Trabuco Hills High School record.

“Kayla had a great prep career coming up to this,” said Looper. “Her biggest strength is being able to spot the ball. In the fall, I think she left a few hanging over the plate, and she learned what these good collegiate hitters can do with it. So she’s gotten better at trying to pinpoint her location.”

The Hawkeyes have one true catcher on the roster, but she’s a good one in two-time all-Big Ten selection Liz Watkins. Backing up the junior backstop will be super utility player Sam Valentine.

Watkins earned second team all-Big Ten honors as a sophomore in 2010 after starting 46 games, 41 behind the plate. The Taylor Ridge, Ill., native led the squad with seven doubles, five triples and a .584 slugging percentage. She finished the year with a .328 batting average to go along with five home runs.

“Liz is a very dynamic young lady,” said Looper. “She is a very good player when it comes to being a field general and she shows a lot of confidence in her pitchers.”

During the course of the season, Watkins had 10 multiple hit and seven multiple RBI games for the Hawkeyes. In a game against Michigan State last March, Watkins finished 4-for-4 with a home run, a double and three RBI, which included the game-winning hit. As a result, she was named co-Big Ten Player of the Week on March 29.

“She’s definitely got some power,” explained Looper. “Coach Johnson has been working with her diligently this fall in making some adjustments. We expect some very good things out of her, and we think she’s going to be an RBI producer for us in the middle of the line-up.”

Valentine will serve as Watkins’ back-up despite the fact that she has never seen action at the catcher position in her softball career. Last season, the Centerville, Iowa, native played primarily in the infield, where she saw action in 34 contests.

“Sam is working diligently in the bullpen to try and learn the nuances of being a catcher,” said Looper. “She has sacrificed herself for the team to learn that. She’s primarily an infielder, but we haven’t focused her there because she’s going to play a vital role as a back-up catcher.”

Iowa returns four players that saw time in the infield, including returning starters Chelsey Carmody and Katie Keim. The Hawkeyes have also added a trio of talented newcomers to compete for playing time at the infield position.

Carmody headlines the returnees, as the senior started 47-of-48 games a season ago at the shortstop (34) and second base (13) positions. The Pacific, Mo., native paced the team in runs (26), hits (51), home runs (7) and RBIs (32) during her junior campaign. She also finished the year with a .327 batting average and had 13 multiple hit and eight multiple RBI contests.

“Chelsey is going to be one of our anchors in the infield,” said Looper. “She’s fun to watch and brings great experience and confidence with poise. She knows the game and she’s good at making sure everyone around her knows it as well.

“Offensively, she’s a triple threat. She can hit it, bunt it and slap it. This fall, I gave her the freedom to do what’s right in the situation. That’s part of her knowing the game so well. It’s fun when you have a player that can do that.”

Keim returns to the fold for her junior season after making 37 starts (24 3B, 13 SS, 9 2B) during her sophomore season. The Chesterfield, Mo., native batted .248 for the Hawkeyes with five doubles and eight RBI. She was also a perfect 4-of-4 on the base paths.

“Katie is going to be an integral part in our defense — our infield,” said Looper. “We’ll switch her among multiple positions, primarily second and third. She can be put anywhere and she can fit in and do it well. I think she’ll be pretty consistent no matter where we put her.”

Senior Stephanie Ochoa will be one of the primary options for the squad at first base. During her first season in Black and Gold, the Stanton, Calif., native made only two starts at the position. Offensively, Ochoa collected 15 hits, five of which were doubles, in 83 at-bats.

“Och has worked hard at being consistent, which gives her an opportunity to anchor us down at the first base position,” said Looper. “At the plate, she’ll give us power production on the left side. We expect her to drive in some runs and give us opportunities to score multiple runners.”

Sophomore Jordan Goschie returns after starting 17 games at second base during her first season as a Hawkeye. She collected eight hits and scored eight runs, while batting .200.

“Jordan came in as an infielder — we’re still working her there – but we’re trying to teach her the outfield,” said Looper. She’s learned some new positions this fall to allow here to expand her role.”

The Hawkeyes also added three newcomers that will be in the mix for playing time in the infield in Brianna Luna, Nikki Gentile and Michelle Zoeller.

Luna joins the squad from Indio, Calif., where she was a four-time all-conference selection. Gentile was the DFAL League Most Valuable Player, while also being named as a top-100 East Bay prep athlete as a senior, and Zoeller joined the program as a walk-on after prepping at Homestead High School in Wisconsin.

“Our three freshmen worked incredibly hard in the fall, trying to pick up our system,” said Looper. “Brianna and Nikki will provide depth for our team on the corners, while Michelle will give us overall depth throughout the infield.”

“Brianna is going to be on the corners, primarily third base. She’s not afraid to be close in and know that the ball is going to be rocketed at her. She’ll provide us depth on the corners.

“Nikki is working primarily at first base and in the outfield to give us depth, while Michelle will also provide infield depth. In the short time we’ve had her this fall; she’s worked hard to make the adjustments and has shown she can get the job done.”

The Hawkeyes return two starters in outfielder in Jenny Schuelke and Johnnie Dowling. The pair, who started every game for the squad a season ago, will be joined by five underclassmen who will be fighting for playing time.

Schuelke made 46-of-her-48 starts in left field for Iowa in 2010. She finished the year with 32 hits, 17 runs, six home runs and 24 RBI. She closed out the season with a .274 batting average, but that mark rose to .356 during Big Ten action.

“Jenny provides us a lot of experience playing in the Big Ten,” said Looper. “She gives us great opportunity to have consistent play in the outfield. Offensively, she’s a double threat and provides us speed on the bases.”

Dowling returns for her second season in Black and Gold, after starting 41 games in center field as a true freshman. The Des Moines, Iowa, native scored 18 runs and had 18 RBI in her first collegiate season, while being successful in 13-of-15 attempts on the base paths.

“Johnnie provides our strongest arm in the outfield to go along with great speed,” said Looper. “She’ll have the opportunity to be our defensive general in the outfield. At the plate, she’s the type of player that is going to find a way to get on and if others are on, she’ll find a way to get them in.”

Ashley Akers and Ashley Vanderloo will be two sophomores who will look to play the other corner outfield position. Akers started a single game in the grass a season ago, but she was a valuable pinch runner for the squad. Vanderloo, meanwhile, played in 15 games a season ago with one start.

“Akers made some great improvement this fall and really gives us good speed in the outfield,” said Looper. “We’ve had her primarily in centerfield, but she can also work in either left or right. She’s improved tremendously and could be a vital player for us.”

Freshman Katie Kroeger also has a chance to step in and compete for a great deal of “PT”. The Byrnes Mill, Mo., native was a four-time first team all-conference and all-district selection as a prep.

“Katie brings us a lot of energy in the outfield,” said Looper. “With experience and composure, she can really help our team.”

Iowa will also look to Gentile and Goschie to provide depth in the outfield.