CEDAR CITY, Utah, Jan. 15 - The Big Sky Conference released its softball preseason coaches poll on Wednesday. Idaho State was selected as the favorite with five top votes while Southern Utah was tabbed to finish third, just behind Sacramento State. Both the Thunderbirds and the Hornets received one first-place vote. Portland State came fourth in the poll while Northern Colorado, Weber State and North Dakota rounded out the preseason picks.
Coming off a successful debut season that saw the Thunderbirds reach the Big Sky Conference championship game, the Southern Utah University softball team looks to elevate to even greater heights in 2014.
The T-Birds return two all-conference performers in shortstop Kelli Hales and centerfielder Kylee Wolf who both earned recognition as true freshmen. Wolf was one of the team’s top-hitters during the Big Sky season with .404 batting average and Hales hit .318 while helping the infield lead the conference by turning 39 double plays. Senior pitcher Ariel Hart (Zimmerman) is also back after being named the league’s Newcomer of the Year.
“It was pretty unbelievable how Kylee was able to turn things around and hit that well during the second half of the season,” commented Magnusson. “Kelli is steady, you know what you are going to get everyday. She’s going to play good defense, she’s going to show up and she’s going to get her hits. Ariel throws the ball harder and has better pitches.”
Hart’s outstanding debut season saw the right-hander post the ninth-highest strikeout total in school history after fanning 123 batters over 186.2 innings. Southern Utah also returns junior pitcher Ashley Ostler ands add junior college transfer Katie Greenberg.
Senior infielder Kadi Henderson brings back some power to the Thunderbird lineup, after finishing second on the team last year with six home runs and 29 RBI. Madison Resley will look to climb up the SUU record book during her final season by adding to her 19 career home runs. Junior college transfer Lyndsey Healey will also provide another strong bat and improved defense from behind the plate.
“Kadi has the capability to be big. Two games against Nevada last year she had eight RBI. She hit a grand slam and went hit 3-for-4 the second game,” commented Magnusson. “Madi hit four home runs last year, she does that on five pitches in batting practice. Lyndsey is going to make a difference with the way she plays defense.”
A talented group of newcomers will give the T-Birds more depth than they have had in recent years. Junior infielder Sara Park has been a consistent hitter throughout her career and incoming freshman Ashley Clayson was named the 5A MVP by the Deseret News after hitting .462 as a senior at Copper Hills High School last season.
“Sarah will lead off for us, we will get a chance to see what she can do,” said Magnusson. “Ashley was a shortstop her junior year in high school and a catcher her senior year, so she is someone that you can move around.”
Softball fans will also want to keep an eye out for freshman Jordan Theurer. The decorated slugger’s accolades include three consecutive state titles at Bear River High School, multiple MVP awards, being named Ms. Softball by the Deseret News in 2012 as well as the ESPN Gatorade Player of the Year for the state of Utah. She will look to make her mark both offensively and defensively after recording a .517 batting average as a senior last year to go along with a 1.83 ERA.
“Jordan has the possibility of putting up numbers for all four years here. She is the type of hitter who can drive the ball. You put them in the middle of the order and let them drive in runs,” explained Magnusson. “She has shown that she is an even better pitcher than I thought she was.”
After making a run at the conference championship last season, Southern Utah looks poised to contend once again in the second season of Big Sky softball. Coach Magnusson believes that this group is even more talented and versatile than last year’s tournament team and has high expectations for his T-Birds.
“Last year (in the Big Sky) there were pretty much four teams that were the top teams. Now that Weber State is going to be better, that puts another team in there and Northern Colorado played us well here at the end of the year so it might be deeper this year,” stated Magnusson. “I think we have a good chance at winning the league and not just making a run at the tournament.”
Preseason Softball Poll
1. Idaho State 35 (5)
2. Sacramento State 28 (1)
3. Southern Utah 26 (1)
4. Portland State 24
5. Northern Colorado 15
6. Weber State 13
7. North Dakota 6
(Number of first place votes in parenthesis)