Expectations have never been higher for Florida Atlantic softball than they are heading into the 2016 season.
The Owls will begin this season as the favorites to win the Conference USA championship, as voted by the conference’s coaches. They received 141 of the poll’s 144 possible points.
“It makes me feel good, like we’re ready for the season to start,” said sophomore shortstop Emily Lochten. “We ended hard last year. It was tough losing to Western [Kentucky] and University of Florida, but I feel like we’re more prepared this year for those teams than we were last year.” Lochten was one of three Owls to gain preseason recognition as she and
senior outfielder Christina Martinez were named to Conference USA’s 2016 Softball Preseason Team. “It’s just a crazy feeling,” said Martinez. “It’s a great accomplishment to know my hard work has paid off and our team’s hard work has paid off, that we’re getting acknowledged for all the great things we’ve done last season and how much we’ve improved.” The third player to receive that honor was also named Conference USA’s Preseason Pitcher of the Year, junior Kylee Hanson. However, Hanson has an opposite view of the recognition compared to her teammate.
“Doesn’t matter ‘til the postseason,” said Hanson, who is looking for her team to improve on last year’s successful season, which ended after a 1-0 loss at the hands of the Florida Gators, the eventual national champions, in an NCAA Regional. It was the first time the team reached the regional tournament since 2006.
“It ended great,” said head coach Joan Joyce, reflecting on last year’s season. “We would like to have won the game, but I mean we gave them a really good battle for sure. Word on the street had it that they were shaking in their boots.”
The team made it to the tournament thanks to an at-large bid, a tournament invitation for 32 teams who are unable to win their respective conference championship, after losing to Western Kentucky in the Conference USA championship. Preseason predictions pegged them as the third-best team in the conference entering last season. “They’re stronger, faster, they are not going to let anybody beat them,” Joyce said regarding the team’s loss. “That is their mentality right now.” Coach Joyce feels that her pitchers are a major reason why FAU is the conference’s team to beat.
“All the teams in our conference are no slouches and we’ve been picked No. 1, and I think it’s basically because of our pitching staff,” said Joyce. “Our pitching staff is better than all of the pitching staffs [in the conference].”
Hanson and junior Amanda Wilson return with the team’s two lowest ERAs from last year’s pitching staff that blew away the rest of Conference USA in ERAs a season ago, at 1.84.
The next two closest teams registered team ERAs of 2.16 and 2.69, respectively.
Prior to last season, Owls’ recent graduate Samantha Messer was dubbed Preseason Pitcher of the Year, helping Hanson sit below the radar entering the season. Messer finished the season with the Owls’ third-lowest ERA, behind Hanson and Wilson.
“Kylee and Amanda were under 2.00 [ERA] so it made Sam look like she didn’t know what she was doing last year, but that wasn’t the case. Sam did an excellent job for us,” Joyce said.
Hanson said she feels no pressure now that the expectations are on her shoulders coming into 2016. Her coach holds the same beliefs.
“I think Kylee will handle it just fine,” said Joyce. “Probably the best pitcher we’ve had here was Nikki Myers,” continued the coach. Myers was a finalist for the 2002 Softball National Player of the Year, and a two-time Second Team All-American. “I think Kylee is almost to Nikki’s level. She’s looked really good the whole year. When we had the break at Christmas, Kylee was ready …. [She] spotted the ball so well in the fall. I think that the addition of her learning how to throw the low riseball last year was what made her so much better, because [hitters] stay off of her high one. And then she’ll go to the dropball to the curveball and screwball all in the same place and now [hitters] don’t know what to expect.” Joyce is also confident that the rest of her pitchers will be able to handle any situation thrown at them on days Hanson and Wilson can’t control the rubber. She believes this pitching staff has the potential to be one of the greatest FAU has ever witnessed.
“In having three or four pitchers, I think this could be one of our best,” said the coach. Joyce continued praising her star pitchers’. “I couldn’t believe it, I told them, throw a screwball on the outside corner. On the outside corner. Throw a rise ball high and in, high and in. I wish they were this ready on the 12th of Feb.”
The barrier that the Owls will have to break through for a championship season will be on offense. Last season they had the eighth highest team batting average out of 12 teams in Conference USA. However, they were able to manufacture runs utilizing a small-ball offense, and score the third-most runs in the conference behind the second-most steals and most sacrifice hits.
“We’re going to play the same game we’ve always played,” said Joyce. “We are going to be aggressive, we’re going to make the other teams play …. If we can score three runs we’ll win a lot of ball games.”