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Season Preview: Optimism Abounds As Bulldogs Prepare To Kick Off Campaign

Tori Balta. (photo by Sam Rubin '95, Yale Sports Publicity)
Tori Balta. (photo by Sam Rubin '95, Yale Sports Publicity)

Yale Kicks Off Season This Weekend At Spartan Clash

NEW HAVEN, Conn. – 2014 may not have been the ideal year for the Yale softball team to play its earliest season opener in school history. The weather in February in New Haven has been anything but spring like. Fortunately, Yale is heading south for its first weekend of play. The Bulldogs will be in Norfolk, Va., for the Spartan Clash, hosted by Norfolk State.

But even the weather in Virginia isn't perfect. With the forecast calling for thunderstorms on Friday, the Bulldogs will now kick off the season on Saturday. Yale plays Wagner at 9 a.m. and then meets Norfolk State at 11. On Sunday, the Bulldogs face Fairleigh Dickinson at 11 a.m.

There is a great deal of optimism surrounding the Yale softball program as the 2014 season gets under way. Second-year head coach Jen Goodwin, who watched as her team belted a school record 31 home runs in her first season, has a talented cast of characters.

"I believe this group is very determined," Goodwin said. "Their commitment to doing the `extra' this year has really come through more than anything else. They are pushing each other, holding each other accountable, and it has helped us grow together as a unit. With such a large, energetic and versatile freshman class, the intensity of our workouts, practices and overall atmosphere has risen."

Despite the unusually snowy winter, Goodwin is confident her team is ready for the start of the season.

"Preseason practices have been very efficient, and the weather hasn't been much of an issue at this point," she said. "We expect to be indoors for a period of time, and we structure our practices so we get a little bit of everything each day. We have more depth than we did last year so managing the players and trying to give each enough reps in multiple positions has been our goal. The versatility of this year's squad has made for very difficult decisions for the coaches as we try to write the first lineup of the season. It's a great problem to have."

Yale will feature a deep pitching staff, anchored by senior Chelsey Dunham, who will be returning to her home state for this weekend's tournament. Dunham begins her final season fourth all-time at Yale with 47 complete games, fifth with 212 career strikeouts and tied for ninth with 23 career victories. Last year, she was fifth in the Ivy League in innings (130.2) and tied for fourth in games started (22) in addition to leading the Yale staff in in innings, complete games (12) and strikeouts (49).

Dunham will have plenty of support. Fellow senior Kristen Leung has thrown nearly 175 innings in her career. Last year, she was second on the staff in earned run average, and as a sophomore was the recipient of the team's most improved player award. Sophomore Rhydian Glass showed great potential in her rookie season when she led the team in earned run average and tied for the team lead in wins. In all, she tossed 105.1 innings.

Freshman Lindsay Efflandt hopes to make an immediate impact in the circle. A native of Cary, Ill., Efflandt is the Cary-Grove High School record holder for lowest career earned run average (0.97), career victories (89) and career shutouts (37). In her career she struck out 765 hitters.

There will be a new look to the Yale infield. Third baseman Christy Nelson '13, second baseman Jennifer Ong '13 and first baseman Kelsey Warkentine '13 have all graduated. Shortstop Brittany Labbadia, a sophomore, does return. She started 44 games a year ago and led the team with nine stolen bases and two triples, finished third in batting average (.257) and runs scored (21) and tied for fourth in hits (29).

There are a number of candidates to fill the void at the other infield positions. Juniors Kylie Williamson and Hannah Brennan should contribute at the corner spots. Williamson, who plays first, belted her first career home run last year against Cornell. Brennan, a third baseman, also exhibited power last spring. She tied for second on the team with five doubles and was third with three home runs.

Sophomore Lauren Delgadillo can play both first and third base. Her career started with a bang. At the season opening University of Washington Tournament, she hit a walk-off home run in a 6-5 victory over New Mexico on her way to earning Ivy League Rookie of the Week recognition. In 18 games she batted .378 with three home runs before suffering a season-ending injury.

Senior Alex Lucas provides depth at first base. She is a two-time recipient of the Andy Van Etten Coaches Award, which is bestowed upon the player who represents the ideals of Yale Softball that go beyond statistics. Last year, she batted .250 and had a key two-run double against Sacred Heart.

Freshman Laina Do has looked good at second base in the preseason. She batted .354, scored 22 runs and stole 19 bases as a senior at Burbank High School in California. Lindsay Efflandt, who will also pitch, can play first as well. She hit 13 home runs and had 83 RBI in her career at Cary-Grove High School.

Sarah Onorato, who is coming off one of the most remarkable seasons in Yale history, returns behind the plate. She was named the Ivy League Player of the Year, the first Yale player to win the award since Seema Hingorani in 1991. In addition, she was the first team All-Ivy catcher and an NFCA All-Northeast Region second team selection. Nationally, she finished fourth in doubles per game (0.4), ninth in slugging percentage (.852) and 21st in batting average (.430). She led the Ivy League in batting average, slugging percentage, on base percentage (.497), runs scored (37), hits (64), doubles (19), home runs (14) and total bases (127). Her 127 total bases were the second most in Ivy history, .852 slugging percentage was the third highest and the 14 home runs tied for the fifth most in a season. She set Yale single-season school records in hits, doubles and home runs and her .430 average tied her with Jennifer Fong (1993) for the highest in school history.

Camille Weisenbach, who also can play first base, will serve as Onorato's primary back up. She was a three-time all-conference selection at Bothell High School in Washington.

Senior Tori Balta, the team captain, anchors the Yale outfield, just like she has since the day she arrived in New Haven. Balta has appeared in 131 games in her outstanding career and is a three-time All-Ivy selection. Last spring she was the 37th toughest player to strikeout in all of Division I softball. She struck out just seven times in 136 official at bats. Her 11 sacrifice bunts were the second most in the Ivy League. In addition she started 45 games in centerfield and was one of only five players to start all 20 Ivy League games.

Junior Riley Hughes and sophomore Allie Souza also are experienced outfielders. Hughes tied for fourth on team with four doubles last year and was the recipient of team's most improved player award. She raised her batting average by 45 points from her rookie season. Souza started 41 games, mostly in left field, as a rookie.

Four freshmen could make an impact in the outfield as well. Carolyn McGuire, who can also catch and play the infield, has been swinging the bat well in the preseason. She batted .410 with five home runs as a senior at Saint Francis High School in California. Kristin Mendez, a Texas native, was a member of three Big East Tournament championship teams at Phillips Academy. Ceri Godinez was three-time first team all-league selection and batted .491 as a senior at the Crossroads School.  Rachel Paris, an all-league selection as a senior at Santa Monica High School in California, can play a number of positions, including the outfield.

Following the Spartan Clash, the Bulldogs will be off until Mar. 11 when they begin a week in Clearwater, Fla., which include participating in the University of South Florida Under Armour Tournament. Ivy League play begins Mar. 28 at Penn.

"We have increased our strength of schedule this year across the board, so every day we step on the field, we need to be at our best," Goodwin said. "I truly believe that you have to play the best to be the best so all of the games we play prior to the Ivy season will allow us to mix up the lineup, see which combinations work best together, and should put us into the best position to compete within the league."

Report filed by Tim Bennett, Yale Sports Publicity