Top of the heap
The reigning Conference USA-champion Cougars begin the season ranked in the top 25 in both the USA Today (No. 20), and ESPN.com (No. 22) polls.
The Cougars are coming off one of their best seasons in program history as they advanced to the NCAA Super Regionals and fell just one game short of the College World Series.
The Cougars were led by their strong pitching staff, which posted the best team ERA in the nation (1.35). Amanda Crabtree, who led the nation in strikeouts per game, and Donna Bourgeois, C-USA Newcomer of the Year, were the aces of that staff.
Even with both Crabtree and Bourgeois not returning this season, head coach Kyla Holas is confident that the Cougars won’t skip a beat from last season’s success.
“We have been working with our young pitchers in the bullpen and have been teaching them as much as we can to get them ready,” Holas said.
“I do think you will see a better staff at the end of the year than you will at the beginning.”
The pitchers expected to fill the empty spots in the rotation left by Bourgeois and Crabtree are sophomores Diedre Outon and Bailey Watts.
In 60 2/3 innings as a freshman, Outon posted a 6-3 record with a 1.73 ERA while striking out 40 batters.
Watts did not pitch last season, but as a freshman in 2010, she led UH with 14 wins and a 2.85 ERA while striking out nearly a batter-per-inning (164 1/3 IP/163 SO).
Because of the lack of senior leadership on the pitching staff this season, the Cougars will have to rely more heavily on their offense, which is led by C-USA Player of the Year Melissa Gregson.
Gregson, a senior from Rancho Cucamonga, California, led the conference in home runs (16) and total bases (108) last season and is expected to duplicate those numbers this year as she was voted the Preseason C-USA Player of the Year.
Need for speed
Holas has stressed all offseason that speed and conditioning would be the key to a successful season.
“For us, speed was an issue so we worked really hard to become a much faster team so that we can hopefully steal some bases so we don’t have to rely on our hitters as much,” she said.
The Cougars are hoping to build upon last year’s success and make it even further into the postseason.
“Falling that one-game short hurt a lot and none of us ever want to have that feeling again,” Gregson said.
Gregson believes that they can take the next step to reach the College World Series.
“We have a talented team with talented players,” she said.
“We just need to work together and communicate and everything will be fine.”
The Cougars open the season as the hosts of the Hilton Houston Plaza Classic at Cougar Softball Stadium.
Their first opponent is North Texas at 3 p.m. on Friday, followed by Texas A&M Corpus Christi at 5 p.m.