RIVERSIDE, Calif.—After an incredibly successful and historical 2018 season for the UC Riverside Softball Team, the Highlanders have waited patiently to return to the diamond, flipping their calendars and preparing for an exciting 2019 campaign.
"We are so excited to get this season going," Head Coach Nikki Palmer said. "Each year we continue to climb up the competitive ladder and I know our team is ready to take on the challenge that this tough schedule is going to present."
Since earning an NISC Regional and finishing as the runner-up in the championship round, UCR has been preparing on and off the field with its new-look group that features 11 newcomers and 11 returners. Of the 11 that have yet to dawn the blue and gold in a game, eight are true freshmen, but that wont stop them from making an impact early on.
"We have a lot of youth this year, definitely the most in my time here, but they are also the most talented and mature group we've had," Palmer said. "They all arrived here with a great base for skill and athleticism and because of that we have been able to build them up at a much quicker pace."
Coach Palmer sees her starting lineup being a youthful one this season, predicting freshmen Haylee Kela and Nadia Witt will occupy the outfield, and one of the rookies will sit behind home plate.
Among the returners for the Highlanders are three savvy veterans in seniors Hannah Rodriguez and Brittney Garcia, and junior Emma Ramelot. Rodriguez comes in as the reigning Big West Defensive Player of the Year after a phenomenal performance at shortstop last season. She and Ramelot earned Second Team All Conference honors. Garcia returns as the other middle-infielder after leading the team in both RBIs and home runs in her junior year.
"Hannah is always so consistent on the defensive end and is a true professional offensively," Palmer said. "Britt does a great job of popping in RBIs for us and Emma has put in so much work this offseason that I know its going to pay off for her. She has prepared more than I've seen her before."
Seniors Amanda Lynch and Rebecca Faulkner round out a powerful group of leaders for this UCR squad.
Hitting the ball and scoring runs was of course a big part of the team's success last year as the Highlanders saw their most hits, runs, RBIs, and triples in Division I history, but the dominance in the circle paid dividends as well with the team collecting the third best ERA in the Big West (2.78) and earning 15 shutout victories.
This season, with its main two hurlers from last season gone, UC Riverside will look elsewhere to continue its pitching successes. With newly appointed pitching coach and softball hall-of-famer Cindy Bristow on board, the possibilities seem endless. Since arriving, Bristow has helped Faulkner and junior returners Haley Marschall and Jacy Boles develop their confidence and skillset. She has also aided incomers, including junior Melanie Olmos and freshman Megan Casper prepare for their first season in blue and gold.
"Overall, what is great about our pitching staff is that they function well as a unit and there is a lot of unselfishness in the circle," Palmer explained. "Coach Bristow has done an incredible job. She really has a lot of care for the student-athletes and it has resonated really well with our pitchers."
After earning just two starts last year, Boles has been a force in the offseason and will look to make the starting rotation.
"Jacy made it her mission this summer to dominate in any way possible and we have seen a huge change in her," Palmer said. "She started putting in the work early, and now we're seeing her reap the benefits. We expect her to give us a lot this year and go a log way for us."
Joining Boles as another likely starter is Olmos, who returns to her hometown after winning an NCAA championship with Oklahoma two years ago.
The Highlanders will kick off the year with two road tournaments before returning home to host four of their own. Big West Conference play is set to begin in late March and after finishing third in the standings last year, the program's best finish, UC Riverside has its sights set on landing a spot in its first NCAA Tournament.