Feb. 4, 2016
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By DARREN MILLER
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Every softball program in the country is eager to start a new season and the University of Iowa is no different. Head coach Marla Looper can point to a week-long stretch at the end of 2015 as proof of potential big things to come for the Hawkeyes in 2016.
On May 3, 2015, Iowa concluded its regular season with an 8-6 victory over Northwestern at Pearl Field. Four days later, in the Big Ten Conference Tournament opener, the Hawkeyes knocked off Rutgers, 5-3. That was followed by a 2-0 shutout win over No. 12 Minnesota in the quarterfinals. On May 9, Iowa scored the final three runs during a 9-6 loss to Nebraska in a tournament semifinal.
“We want to feed off the energy and the fact we did it and no one expected us to,” Lopper said Thursday during Media Day in the Hawkeye Tennis and Recreation Center. “That team minus one is back and we have depth to go with it — new energy and new faces that will challenge our opponent.”
Sixteen letterwinners and eight starters return for a Hawkeye team that finished 19-40 overall, 8-15 in the Big Ten last season. The one starter who will not be back is standout Megan Blank, who posted team-highs in batting (.442), doubles (20), triples (three), home runs (nine) and RBI (40). She also fielded .963 at shortstop.
“You don’t replace a Megan Blank, however, the numbers spread out among the rest of the returners,” Looper said. “We have a dynamic middle infield even though Megan isn’t there. She brought a lot to us and I will never discount that, but I’m confident in the entire team to pick up the numbers we lost when she graduated.”
One position that substantially boosted its depth is pitcher, where junior Shayla Starkenburg (17-23) started 38 games and completed 31 a season ago. Sophomore Ashley Yoways (2-16) started 20 games and finished seven. They will be joined in the circle by senior Jilian Navarrette, junior Elizabeth Wiegand, freshman Erin Riding, and freshman Mallory Kilian.
“If we bring the energy that we have and some of the sharpness and crispness, some of the opponents aren’t going to want to step on the field. They are going to get to ball park, take a breath and know they have a battle on their hands. That is what this team brings, that’s exciting, and that’s how we finished last spring.”
UI softball coach
“Right now we have a staff that I get to learn to manage and I’m excited about that,” Looper said. “We haven’t had that opportunity the last few years. That depth will play a key role in our success this year.”
Starkenburg hurled 250 innings last season, striking out 194 and shutting out five opponents. She won three of her last four decisions. Like Looper, Starkenburg is excited to have more company in the circle.
“It is going to handy, especially when we start playing all those back-to-back games. It will allow us to attack teams in different ways,” she said. “Having other pitchers will allow my arm to rest here and there and allow other pitchers to attack teams as well.”
Junior outfielder Sammi Gyerman followed Blank in most offensive categories a season ago. She batted .326 with 11 doubles, two triples, six home runs, and 36 RBI. Gyerman hit for the cycle against Illinois on April 3, 2015.
“We want to continue to feel the momentum we had at the end of last season,” Gyerman said. “We said, `Let’s come in next fall and bring it into the spring.’ It is something we are trying to bring back.”
Iowa opens the season Feb. 12 at the Texas A&M Corpus Christi Tournament in Corpus Christie, Texas. The Hawkeyes are scheduled to play 27 games away from home before kicking off action at Pearl Field against Drake on March 30.
Because of the experience Iowa has coming back, Looper said the Hawkeyes are two or three months ahead of where they were in 2015. That should provide a wakeup call for their opponents.
“If we bring the energy that we have and some of the sharpness and crispness, some of the opponents aren’t going to want to step on the field,” Looper said. “They are going to get to ball park, take a breath and know they have a battle on their hands. That is what this team brings, that’s exciting, and that’s how we finished last spring.”