COLCHESTER, Vt. - For Saint Michael's College softball head coach Robyn Newton, determining whether the 2013 team should be classified as overly experienced or similarly youthful is anything but straightforward. On one hand, the Purple Knights have their largest senior class since the program was re-established in 1990. On the other, a talented first-year contingent could be the most impactful of the past decade.
"We're half experienced, half new," conceded Newton, now in her 13th year with the program. "Six first-years are going to be getting playing time, which is more than normal for us. I think they are eager and picking things up quickly. Their confidence level is what they need to work on, but that comes as you play more. Our seniors have been doing well leading the younger players by example, and I feel we will become an experienced team very quickly."
Newton, who is joined by a pair of alumni on her coaching staff in sixth-year assistant Meg Currier '07 and second-year assistant Meggan Dulude '07, carried at least five first-years on the roster seven of the last eight years, but only once did as many as four play in more than half of the team's games. This spring's newest class could buck that trend, along with providing talent that should deepen the roster.
"We only lost one player to graduation, so we're basically the same solid team we were last year, with improvements," said Newton. "I know our record didn't show great strides last year, but we were ahead in a lot of close games that could have gone either way. We hope that these improvements we've made will help those kinds of games go our way." Ten of the Purple Knights' losses came by three runs or less in 2012, as they finished 6-32 overall and 4-26 in the Northeast-10 Conference. Among the victories, however, was a 1-0 triumph against perennial power Le Moyne College, the first series win for Saint Michael's since the 2005 NE-10 Championship.
Newton noted that with 20 players, and the talented corps of youths, the team will be better insured this spring against potential slumps and student-athletes missing games due to class conflicts. "There's a lot more depth than we've ever had," said the coach, "and I feel like we're going to take advantage of that a lot this year."
The Purple Knights, who annually begin their season with contests in Florida, have typically headed off for their Spring Break trip with a discernible top nine position players. "More than just nine players will be in the lineup this year, as many players are able and ready to go in when needed, and we will use this depth to our advantage."
The case is similar in the circle. "We have six pitchers, and everybody is going to be involved in either a relief or starting capacity," said Newton. "We're going to utilize their strengths in different ways, whether it be for a few innings each game, or we have them try to pull out a full game. It's going to be a little new territory for us, because we've never had this many capable pitchers."
Seniors Brittany Cantore (Saint Johnsbury, Vt./Saint Johnsbury Academy), Stephanie Frank (Essex, Vt./Essex), Lindsay Houston (Concord, N.H./Concord), Carleen McLaughlin (Branford, Conn./Branford) and Lauren Mercik (Suffield, Conn./Suffield) comprise the Class of 2013.
A second-year captain, Frank pitched in 28 of 38 games last year, spinning a pair of shutouts, while also producing 12 RBIs and eight stolen bases from the middle of the order, and playing the outfield when not pitching. Houston is also a two-year captain, having started 36 games at first base last year. She knocked in eight runs. An outfielder, Cantore launched a team-best three home runs while driving in 12 runs, McLaughlin started 37 games at third base, while Mercik pitched in 13 contests, drawing a pair of starts.
Headlining a seven-player junior class is outfielder Brittany Regis (Monroe, N.H./Saint Johnsbury Academy), who was named NE-10 All-Conference last year despite seeing time in only 16 games, missing the second half of the season due to injury. The speedy slapper batted .294 and went 10-for-11 on stolen base attempts, as well as scoring nearly 45 percent of the time she reached base.
Junior second baseman Amanda Brigante (Colchester, Vt./Colchester) hit .282 with 29 knocks, while shortstop and captain Bethany Falls (Essex Junction, Vt./Essex) posted seven extra-base hits and 10 RBIs and will continue to bat in the middle of the order. Lefty Greer Lemnah (Lyndon Center, Vt./Lyndon Institute) made 38 starts at four positions while appearing at four spots in the batting order, and should continue to appear in the outfield. Fellow lefty Grace Bonaiuto (Beverly, Mass./Austin Preparatory School) drew 25 starts and will continue to patrol the outfield.
A pair of righty hurlers completes the junior class, as Laura McCormack (Natick, Mass./Natick) started 10 games, seeing time in 12, while Lea Gipson (Bridport, Vt./Middlebury Union) garnered three relief outings.
Sophomore Sarah Murray (Wallingford, Conn./Sheehan) started every contest behind the plate last season, smacking six doubles and driving home 12 runs while batting cleanup in 35 games. Classmate Sara St. Don (Lakeville, Mass./Apponequet Regional), who appeared in nine games last spring, is an outfielder by trade and adds depth to the catching corps.
Corner infielder Judi Barcavage (Cold Spring, N.Y./Haldane) is the most potent offensive presence in the first-year class, as she is expected to serve as the designated player when not in the field in order to keep her bat in the middle of the lineup. Classmate Jenna Maksian (Shrewsbury, Mass./Shrewsbury) shows promise behind the plate and joins Murray as the Purple Knights' catchers this spring.
A set of twins and two among three triplets complete the Class of 2016. As the newest members of the pitching staff, righty Jennifer Niles (Chaumont, N.Y./General Brown) and southpaw Jessica Niles (Chaumont, N.Y./General Brown) - the twins in the group - figure to log critical innings. Danielle DelGreco (Lexington, Mass./Lexington) will appear on the right side of the infield at either first or second base, while Katy DelGreco (Lexington, Mass./Lexington) should lend her speed to the outfield and can spell Falls at shortstop.
Beginning in 2013, the 16-team NE-10 has been split between two eight-school divisions. The Purple and Gold will play each of its seven Northeast Division counterparts three times, with those 21-game records determining postseason berths. The top four teams from each division qualify for the NE-10 Championship.
"With the divisional play this year, we have to be in the top four out of eight in our division, and that seems more attainable than being in the top eight out of 16, as in years past," said the coach. "Our goal is to make the tournament, as it always has been, and I feel it's closer to being within our reach this year. We feel our conditioning, our drive, and our work ethic have increased, and we've stepped it up a notch."
The Purple Knights begin the season at the National Training Center Spring Games in Clermont, Fla., for 10 games between March 10 and 15. Among their opponents are Molloy College on opening day and Saint Joseph's (Ind.) College on March 12, squads that were ranked 20th and 21st nationally, respectively, in the Feb. 27 National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) poll. Saint Joseph's is one of two College World Series teams on the docket for Saint Michael's this spring, as 14th-ranked Southern Connecticut State University appears on March 23.
"We've played some top teams in Florida before, and it helps so we can figure out what we have to work on," said Newton. "We're going to try to rise up to that level of competition, because when we come back into the NE-10, a team like Molloy is just as good as Southern Connecticut State. It just gives us that edge to continue to work harder and make adjustments."
In all, the Purple Knights are slated to play seven games against 2012 NCAA Tournament qualifiers. NE-10 action starts on March 19 at Saint Anselm College, with the squad's home opener set for March 27, also against the Hawks. The eight-team NE-10 Championship kicks off on April 30.