UH softball has sights set on big last season in the AAC
In less than two weeks, the Houston softball team will begin its 2023 season in what will be its last in the American Athletic Conference.
Finishing last season with a record of 27-27-1 and a trip to the AAC tournament semifinals, the Cougars are looking to leave one final stamp in the American before the program makes its transition into the Big 12 next season.
Head coach Kristin Vesely enters her seventh season with the team, one that she believes can create noise to start and as the season progresses.
“I think we’re in a really good spot,” Vesely said. “As long as we lean into and continue to compete, which has been a pretty common theme for us. Just making sure that we’re focused and that we’re prepared so that we can have that confidence that comes with being prepared for opening weekend.”
A new season brings new faces to fill those who have come and gone, and despite the changes that come every offseason, the Cougars’ clubhouse sits confidently in believing that this season will bring some special moments for the program.
Led by seasoned veterans in graduates catcher Kati Ray Brown and pitcher Kenna Wilkey, UH knows what it wants to accomplish this season as it prepares for its season opening game against Virginia.
“I think what we’re trying to do as a staff is really hammering, competing and doing the small things well,” Vesely said. “Making sure we’re as ready as we can be. First weekend out is always a feel of what we see. Personality in practice might not be the same as when the lights come on. Trying to put them in challenging situations to see if anything changes with adversity and then really trying to make sure we’re prepared on the field.”
Brown, who is entering her fifth season with the Cougars, stands as one of the leaders remaining after former stars Becca Schulte, Rock Benavides, Aspen Howie, Hannah Todd and Bethany Busch all graduated at the end of last season.
Standing as one of five potential starters returning from last season’s field, Brown is impressed with what she has seen from this roster.
“We definitely have maturity on the team,” Brown said. “We have a lot of returners so that’s going to be really good for us for this upcoming season. We have a lot of girls that have seen the pitchers in conference, so that’ll set us up for success. I also see a lot of excitement with the girls. We have a lot of transfers this year, so this is like a new beginning for them. They get to write their own story at Houston, so there’s a lot of excitement.”
Wilkey, entering her sixth season in college and her second at UH, stands at the forefront of a new look pitching rotation, one that holds potential to pose a threat in the American Athletic Conference.
“I think we have a lot of depth now,” Wilkey said. “I feel like a lot of people who weren’t used last year are going to be a big part of this year and help make an impact. Everyone has been contributing and doing their part so I feel like that’s what is going to be the big key for us this year.”
Standing firm with a home record of 18-15 last season, UH struggled on the road as it donned a 5-7-1 record away from home.
This season, the Cougars open the season with 16 games through three tournaments, all on home soil before heading out on the road for 16 games, a challenge UH will hope to take on with more success than last season.
“For us it’s just being consistent,” Vesely said. “Whether we are in our own beds or on the road, making sure we have the same mindset. Standard doesn’t waver based on location. That’s something we;ve been consistent about. We get to open at home, have a couple of home series and home tournaments and then we get on the road for all of March. We’ll learn very quickly what we’ll look like in conference.”
From the circle to home plate, Wilkey and Brown will be crucial not only on the field, but off the field in helping guide this new Cougars team. In search for leadership, Wilkey and Brown serve as the experienced veterans with 11-combined seasons between the two.
Through the course of the season, their impact will also be a factor not only in how far the Cougars go this season, but where the program stands heading into the Big 12 in July.
“What I’ve seen from leadership is that they’re leaving as people,” Vesely said. “They are fantastic teammates, and that’s something that’s always prideful as a coach. For us, they’ve set some goals and we’ve talked to the staff. Where we want to be is in the regionals and in the postseason, so I think that’s really important to them as they go out the doors leaving the program better than they found it.”
Through six seasons with Vesely at the helm, the Cougars have finished below .500 only once back in the 2021 season.
Finishing exactly at .500 last season with Vesely sitting at a 166-133-1 overall record with the Cougars, the team remains bought in to Vesely’s philosophy and will look to return to winning ways this season.
“We want the trophy, for sure,” Vesely said. “Fourth place seems a little disrespectful for the preseason poll, so it gives us a little chip on the shoulder and a little bit more reason to try and take the title. Not that we needed it, but it adds fuel to the fire.”
The message stands as far as expectations for the team, but individually, Vesely has always carried one signature message for the players throughout the season.
“Be the best you. Be the best version of yourself and that’s something we don’t ever waver from. Regardless of where we are at in the season, you have to be the best version of yourself. We want to be contagious people in the best positive light.”
For the players, the message translates to their own expectations outside of the record and numbers.
“Everybody’s answer is that they want to leave it all out on the field,” Brown said. “I feel like I’ve already been doing that, but for this last season, I just want to make sure that I’m having fun every single pitch.”