Softball aiming higher after last season’s success
The college softball season is just a couple days away and the Cougars are coming off one of their best seasons under head coach Kristin Vesely.
Vesely became head coach after the 2016 season and brought the Cougars to the NCAA Regionals in her second season in 2018.
Ahead of her third season running the show, Vesely spoke about expectations and strengths of this year’s Cougars.
After making regionals last year, Vesely said the team knows what it takes to make it there again. Now, they’re looking to push even farther and possibly host a regionals or a super regionals.
“As soon as they understand how good they are as a group, the sky is the limit.” Vesely said. “I think once (the players) got there, it was so satisfying for them that this year they go ‘Okay, we know what it takes to get to regionals, now let’s line ourselves up for Super Regionals.'”
A new weapon to help the Cougars is a fourth pitcher in the rotation, freshman Rachel Hertenberger.
Hertenberger was a three year starter in high school and Vesely said that she is expected to contribute right away.
With another pitcher on the roster, Vesely said she hopes to keep players healthy and fresher deeper into the season.
“We’re going to pitch by committee at the beginning of the year to make sure that we eliminate injuries and to not give any one team to see the same pitcher three or four times through,” Vesely said.
With Hertenberger, the Cougars now have four pitchers with different styles, which will force team to scout more and not get too comfortable at bat.
Hertenberger has a lot of movement in her throws and excels at offspeed pitches, while Heebner brings the heat with 68 mph pitches, which are equivalent to 94-96 mph fastballs in baseball according to Vesely.
Junior right-handed pitcher Trystan Melancon pitches high in the zone with pitches up to 65 mpg and senior Presley Bell has lot of movement to her throws as well and played more of a relief role last season.
The Cougars have 12 upperclasswomen returning from last season, including its three pitchers who had a combined 1.92 ERA.
Leading the pitchers is senior Savannah Heebner who had a 1.15 ERA last season across 237.2 innings pitched. Heebner has been put on USA Softball’s Player of the Year Watch List and was an All-American last season.
On the other side of the plate, senior Maya Thomas and juniors Sarah Queen and Arielle James are coming off great seasons with 56+ hits each. The trio drove in nearly 40 percent of the team’s runs in 2019.
Last season the Cougars were defined by its defense and pitching, but this year Vesely hopes to have a more offensively minded team while keeping up the team’s standard in the other parts of the game.
From the underclassmen, Vesely said to keep an eye on Hertenberger and sophomores Tierrah Williams and Aspen Howie.
“Last season, (Williams) finished the season really well, but it was her freshman year so you get really good days and some not so good days,” Vesely said. She hopes for Williams and other sophomores to stabilize and perform more consistently.
Houston’s opening slate at the Houston Invitational will test the team with Oklahoma State, Kentucky and Illinois coming into town. The Cowgirls and Wildcats are ranked in both the coaches and USA Softball poll, at 22/21 and 13/15, respectively.
Houston and those two teams all made it to the NCAA tournament last season and Kentucky made it to the Super Regional round.
While the Cougars have Heebner, the team will face three other women on USA Softball’s watchlist.
Kentucky’s senior infielder Katie Reed, Oklahoma State senior infielder Madi Sue Montgomery and Illinois’ senior outfielder Kiana Sherlund are all on the watchlist with Heebner.
While winning all five games of the invitational would be ideal, Vesely said that the team’s goal is to compete and get a feel for where the team stands.
“When you are playing quality teams that on paper or perception have more talent, how confident and how resilient and how hard you compete can win you some of those games,” Vesely said. “If we happen to make any mistakes, how do we recover as a team? If a bump comes into the road, how do we respond as individuals and as a team?”
Houston starts the season at 3:30 p.m. Friday at the Cougar Softball Stadium versus Kentucky and then plays Oklahoma State at 6 p.m.