Aggies will rely on upperclassmen to launch another successful run
In the blink of an eye, a long, quiet offseason has vanished and the 2020 season is officially underway for UC Davis softball. The Aggies will embark on a 55-game schedule starting with a doubleheader on Feb. 6 versus Saint Mary’s and California Baptist at La Rue Field.
The Aggies are fresh off a 39-14 season in 2019, the best mark in the program’s Division I history, that earned them a third-place finish in the Big West Conference. The team was in the thick of the title race until late in the season, vying for a spot in the NCAA tournament regionals.
UC Davis only lost two starters from last year’s team and has an excellent core of upperclassmen to make another run this spring. The juniors and seniors will be relied upon heavily to lead the way for a promising five-player freshman class.
“Just two years ago, we were talking about how young some of our team was, and now they’re juniors and seniors,” said sixth-year head coach Erin Thorpe. “Now, we’re talking about having that leadership there. We’re looking to them and now’s their time to step up and lead.”
The team received a significant blow when junior pitcher Brooke Yanez, the ace of the staff, announced her transfer to Oregon in June.
“I think that’s something where everyone’s going to feel it a little bit differently,” Thorpe said. “It always hurts when you have a loss like that. It’s one of those things in our sport right now that’s happening a lot and this is the first time it impacted us.”
Yanez is one of the top arms in the entire country, putting up mind-boggling numbers in her two years on campus. She departed Davis with a career record of 40-18 and a 1.38 ERA. She was recognized as the league’s Pitcher of the Year last spring after she threw a perfect game and no-hitter.
Needless to say, there are some big shoes left to be filled in the circle, but Thorpe is confident she has more than enough impactful talent on the roster to fill that void.
“From a coaching staff perspective, it’s something that you just roll with the punches,” Thorpe said. “Now, we have our team out here and we figure out how to battle and win the ballgames with what we have. I feel very strong in the core that we have. We have two very strong freshman pitchers and hopefully they’re going to have the opportunity to shine in a way that maybe they wouldn’t have had Brooke still been here.”
Thorpe and her staff are excited about the abilities of freshmen hurlers Taylor Fitzgerald and Kenedi Brown, a duo of local right-handers from Rocklin and Elk Grove, respectively.
“We’re looking for both of them to get a lot of pitching time this year and maybe step up and play a role that freshman don’t always get the opportunity to play,” Thorpe said.
In addition, the team still gets one more year from senior pitcher Katie Kibby, a fourth-year starter who’s thrown over 400 innings and made 69 starts as an Aggie. Kibby threw four shutouts last season and ranked fifth in the conference for fewest hits allowed (97). She was the leader of the staff before Yanez arrived and now reenters the spotlight for one final ride.
“Katie has been in a starting role since the time she was a freshman and now has an opportunity to leave as the winningest pitcher in Division I history here at Davis,” Thorpe explained. “We’re excited to see how she’s going to grab the bull by the horns. We are looking for her to lead and show our young pitchers the way of the land.”
No matter who’s pitching, the Aggies have the utmost confidence they can back them up and make all the plays in the field. UC Davis was the second best team in the Big West last season, in both fielding percentage and fewest errors, and its defense will continue to benefit from the group of players that have been together for so long.
“In these leagues now, you’re not seeing too many overly-dominant pitchers across the board so we’re going to have to play defense,” Thorpe said. “We’re poised to get even better from last year defensively and it’s another year out there together.”
Thorpe admitted that the girls will have to rely a little more on their offense this season after the departure of Yanez, but that shouldn’t be a problem for the league’s third-highest scoring team last season. The Aggies have few holes from one through nine in the lineup and will prove a tough out against any opponent.
The team’s top-four hitters are back from last season and look to replicate their success at the plate.
Junior outfielder Alyse Rojas is the leader of the pack and a dynamic hitter at the top of the lineup. She led the team in batting average, hits, runs and on-base percentage while starting every single game. Rojas’ older sister, senior first baseman Maddie Rojas, has started nearly every game she appeared in over three years and is looking to cap an exceptional Aggie career. She hit .299 last year and enjoyed several hot streaks throughout the season.
Senior utility player Isabella Leon is also a mainstay at the top of the lineup, with good plate discipline and sharp instincts on the basepaths. Her 26 walks and nine stolen bases were both team-highs a year ago. Similar to Maddie Rojas, she has started all but four of the games she’s appeared in during her three-year stint on campus.
Senior outfielder Marisa Given can provide the punch in the middle of the lineup with gap-to-gap power and the ability to cover a ton of ground in the outfield.
There’s no doubting the physical and mental stress that a 55-game schedule can have on a player. The Aggies are scheduled to play 18 doubleheaders and often play as many as 4-6 games in a weekend during the non-conference slate. Thankfully, Thorpe’s experience has allowed her to get a handle on managing the intense demands that each season brings.
“We think about how to attack it with periodization throughout the year and figure out when we want to be strongest and playing our best games,” Thorpe said. “Most of the time, we have a pretty good attack on what parts of the season we’re working on different things to try and be strong at the end.”
The older players on the roster will also have a key role to play in setting examples for the new underclassmen.
“This year, because we have such strong core of upperclassmen coming back, we’re really relying on them to help the younger girls understand how to go about working their bodies and conserving their energy and still being able to stay focused during the pre-conference part of the season,” Thorpe said.
The team tries to schedule as many home games as possible in the non-conference in order to mitigate the burden of a long season and allow players to put their best foot forward in the classroom. It’s hard enough being a student at a top university like UC Davis, but the time commitment for practices and games makes it even tougher to keep up with a rigorous academic course load.
Thorpe believes that being able to sleep in your own bed and actively participate on campus is vital for every one of her players, and is a big focus in the overall structure of her program.
Besides the academic benefits, playing home games at La Rue Field lets the players feed off the passionate support from their local community. When the weather is warm and the sun is shining, the team typically draws very strong crowds and Thorpe says “the louder it is, the better.”
Overall, Thorpe has made tremendous strides in her five-plus years at the head of the program, and she continues to foster an environment of ambition and self-growth.
In addition to churning out top talents on the diamond and helping her players succeed in the classroom, she was instrumental in carrying out much-needed renovations at La Rue Field in early 2018. The facelift included a new dugout and bullpen, as well as a clubhouse beyond the right field fence. Most importantly, a redesigned drainage system was constructed to help deal with the perennial rain in Davis. The infield dirt and outfield grass were also replaced.
“It’s about finding the right combination of people to believe in a similar thing, to be able to move forward,” Thorpe said, looking back on her time at Davis thus far. “I feel comfortable in those areas because I’m constantly striving to move forward.”
Chancellor Gary May recently unveiled a new mantra for the university: “Outgrow the Expected.” Thorpe believes this motto embodies everything she strives to be for the softball program.
“Throughout my career, I’ve come into programs where we need to work on growing and taking baby steps every single year to get better,” Thorpe said. “I truly believe in making every year better than the last and working hard to make sure we’re constantly showing growth in those realms.”
The Aggies have put together two straight winning seasons — the first in the program’s Division I era — and have all the looks of a team that will play an exciting brand of ball and create many more memories throughout the 2020 season.
“We’re constantly working to be better, 1% every day,” Thorpe said. “We don’t know what the ceilings are for what we’re capable of doing. All we can do is get out here every day, try to be that 1% better and try to leave the program in a better position than when we all found it in the first place.”
Written by: Brendan Ogburn — firstname.lastname@example.org