Experience, depth has No. 3 Argos primed for successful 2018 season
By Tyler Wood
Falling just short of their first-ever Division-II national championship in 2017, the University of West Florida softball team has all the pieces to build off of last year and make another historic run in 2018.
Returning 11 players and adding seven freshmen and three transfers, Coach Melissa Paul and the Argos (46-15, 23-9 GSC) have every right to believe they can repeat and even improve upon the successes they enjoyed last season.
“We had a good run at the end,” Coach Paul said of the Argos’ 2017 playoffs. “I think we ran out of gas a little bit when we got there, but I think we’re a little more prepared, knowing what we know now.”
For the seniors who have graduated, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that many of the returning players are looking forward to getting back to.
“It was a really great experience for us to be there,” said returning shortstop Rhiannon Sassman. “We worked hard all season. This year we’re trying to recreate that, get back, and hopefully go farther than we did.”
The Argos lost just three seniors this offseason, but among those is pitcher Becca Taylor, who led the team in several pitching statistics and was the GSC’s leader in wins (27). Taylor was statistically among the top eight pitchers in UWF history, and replacing her will be no small task. She will remain on the coaching staff as a graduate assistant.
Filling Jacey Castro’s role won’t be easy either, as she was named to the All-GSC team and was a Third Team All-American who split time between first base and left field. Castro’s 110 total bases were second only to Sassman’s 112.
The Argos will also have to replace Caitlin Steel behind the plate, a sure-handed catcher who was named to the All-GSC Third Team. Steel caught more than 100 games for the Argos in the past two seasons and sported a career batting average of .321 with 15 doubles and 45 RBI.
Coach Paul is confident in her team’s ability to carry on without the graduated players and for new players to fill those gaps.
“When you lose someone, there’s always someone willing to step up,” Paul said. “I think we’re going to have some good surprises. We’ve got a lot of freshmen, and though I don’t think we’re going to see a lot of them in the lineup early, they’re going to make some impacts later on and surprise us.”
The outlook on the Argos’ 2018 season is bright, with many returning starters striving for a championship. Several familiar faces will don the blue and green of UWF on the diamond this year, with a handful of newcomers poised to make their mark in 2018.
“We’re obviously eager and hungry to get back, but know there’s a lot to do before we even think about that,” Paul said.
Although Taylor has graduated, the Argos have significant depth in the circle. Paul says that for the first few weekends, the Argos will employ a “pitch-by-committee” scheme until one of the top three candidates emerges as the ace.
Senior pitcher Sarah Maloney has plenty of experience and the tools to lead the Argos back to a championship. Maloney struck out more than six batters per seven innings and led the conference in opponent batting average (.210). She’s capable of going the distance, with 10 complete games and two shutouts — one being a no-hitter against No. 22 Missouri-St. Louis in her first start of the 2017 season.
Her ERA (2.16) led the Argos and was sixth-best in the GSC. Maloney is a tried and true veteran, and we should expect to see her build on her success from last year to become one of the GSC’s premier pitchers in 2018.
“We know what it takes to get back [to the championship], and the hard work that it’s going to take to get there and to hopefully go further this year,” Maloney said.
Sophomore Olivia Printiss, a transfer from Daytona State, will likely see significant time pitching as well. Printiss posted a 2.46 ERA and struck out 108 batters as a freshman for Daytona State, and adds a much-needed second option for the Argos.
Pensacola native Tori Perkins has returned to her hometown and will play for the Argos in 2018 after a two-year stint with the UAB Blazers in Division-I Conference-USA. Perkins pitched 29.2 innings for the Blazers during her time at UAB, with a 3.78 ERA across 18 appearances.
Maloney, Printiss and Perkins will each see substantial playing time in the circle this season, even after the ace emerges.
With the departure of Steel, the Argos lost a tested and reliable veteran. 2017 backup catcher Jacquelynne Poling will likely share time behind the plate with junior transfer Ashley McNally, who played the past two seasons with Jacksonville University.
Paul says Poling works well with pitchers, keeping them calm and focused.
“She does a great job managing our pitchers,” Paul said of Poling. “She does a really good job with Maloney, especially.”
Paul added that she would like to split time between Poling and McNally early in the season, citing their comparable play style and her desire to save the catchers’ legs as much as possible. Once conference play opens on Feb. 17, Paul said she would be open to designating one as the primary starter if the need arises.
Freshman catcher/first baseman Aly Merrill provides extra depth and a third option behind the plate. Paul credited Merrill for being consistent, and said she wouldn’t be surprised to see her in action at some point early in the season.
Returning three of four starters in the infield, the Argos will be without Castro but shouldn’t skip a beat offensively.
The Argos will split time between Kathleen Smiley and Callan Taylor at first base. Smiley started 28 games and proved to be efficient at the plate (.333/.400/.548) in 2017, but is recovering from a knee injury, which will limit her playing time to begin the season.
Paul said that both Smiley and Taylor provide a spark for the offense, and to have them both ready to play is a must.
At second base, the Argos have no question as to whom will fill that role. Two-time All-GSC second baseman Meghan Toney started 60 games last year and led the team in stolen bases with 26. Toney batted .346 and notched 64 hits, good for ninth in the GSC.
“Meghan is the one who jumps out the most,” Paul said. “She’s been here for four years, and everybody remembers Meghan. She’s a voice and a leader out there for us. She communicates well and helps lead the team.”
The Argos are also confident in their returning third baseman, Tiona Hill, who was selected to the All-GSC Tournament team after a strong showing in the playoffs. Hill, a senior, led the Argos with 17 doubles and was third on the team with 35 RBI.
“Tiona does very well defensively, but her bat is going to be her strong suit this year,” Paul said. “She can cover some ground [at third] and make some plays on the run.”
In an infield chocked full of experience and talent, Rhiannon Sassman has established herself as one of Division-II’s premier shortstops, being named a First Team All-American as a freshman in 2016 and a First-Team All-GSC player in 2017. Leading the Argos in batting average (.381), runs (50), triples (7), RBI (40), total bases (112), and nearly every other statistical category, Sassman had a brilliant sophomore season at the plate.
“Sass[man] has been working up the middle with [Toney] for a couple of years and it’s really nice to have a combination with them there,” Paul said.
Sassman’s struggles defensively (22 errors) were the only damper on her otherwise terrific season, and with two years of eligibility remaining, Sassman could write her name in the record books by the time she graduates.
On a team full of experience, UWF’s outfield is the youngest group of players on the 2018 squad. Headlined by junior centerfielder Rachel Wright, the Argos’ outfield is less experienced than the rest of the veteran squad.
Wright, a 2-year starter and 2016 freshman standout, has started over 100 games in center field for the Argos and provides a reliable glove in center field, posting a .986 fielding percentage in 2017. Though Wright endured somewhat of a sophomore slump at the plate (.273 B.A.), she provides some much-needed experience to a young UWF outfield.
Fellow junior Sara Spears has experience in right field, starting 45 games for the Argos in 2017. However, Spears is recovering from a broken foot suffered in the fall and has some lingering arm issues. Paul said we could expect to see her in left field this year when she recovers, with sophomore Kara Wilson assuming the duties in left until then.
Sophomore Jibrasha Moore is pegged to begin the season in right field and bat leadoff for the Argos.
“We’re looking for [Moore] to start our lineup,” Paul said. “She’s a catalyst, she’s obviously got speed and can do a lot of different things, so we’re hoping she can fill that role.”
UWF is one of the clear favorites to win the Gulf South Conference in 2018, and the third-ranked Argos are loaded with experienced and talented players who have developed a strong chemistry over the past few seasons.
“I think that the group of girls we have this year has the heart to put in the work and be able to perform on the field just as well,” Sassman said.
With the most positional depth in recent history, the Argos will have plenty of players to turn to with games on the line. Maloney said this team is deeper than any of the previous three that she’s been a part of.
“We have a lot more depth than we’ve had, especially in the previous years,” Maloney said. “I think that depth is what’s going to help us exceed our expectations.”
Ultimately, teamwork and cohesiveness will propel the Argos as far as they’ll let it take them, and Paul says she expects nothing less.
“I expect us to come out and play hard,” Paul said of the upcoming season. “I expect us to play well together, work well, and communicate. I think overall our offense and defense are ahead of where we were at this point last year, so hopefully those things will help us to pick up any slack elsewhere.”
2018 should prove to be one of UWF’s best seasons yet, and it all starts for the Argos on Feb. 2 in Gulf Shores, Alabama, at the Gulf Coast Invitational Tournament.