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How Utah Is “Stepping Over The Line” This Season

utah softball photo by eli rehmer_utah athletics.jpg
(Photo by Eli Rehmer/Utah Athletics)

A year ago, the Utah softball team was disappointed on Selection Sunday. After a 27-27 finish in 2022 against a tough schedule, the Utes were eligible for the NCAA Tournament, but ultimately didn’t hear their name called.

Fast forward to 2023 and the No. 19 Utes have already surpassed their win total from last year with their best start (29-8) since 2017, the last time they made the postseason. That roster included Olympian Anissa Urtez (Mexico) and All-American Hannah Flippen, who was recently named to the 2023 USA World Cup team.

It’s also their best start in Pac-12 play (11-4) since joining the conference in 2012. Picked to finish 8th in the Pac-12 preseason coaches poll, the Utes currently own second place outright behind UCLA.

With results like this, “scrappy” is a term often used to describe Utah's softball team. Head coach Amy Hogue hasn’t always appreciated the label, but she respects what it says about her team.

“If we’re consistently not letting teams take a pitch off because we’re not taking a pitch off, then yeah, I’m proud of that,” Hogue said on the Bleav in Softball podcast. “If we have to call it ‘scrappy,’ then I’m going to own it and love it.”

That scrappiness can be seen in their speed—how fast they run, how fast they strike and how fast they can change a game. Halfway through conference play, the Utes led the Pac-12 with 81 stolen bases, outscored opponents 46-12 in the first inning and with two outs, hit .347 as a team with 92 RBIs (compared to .266 and 95 RBIs with two outs all of last season).

One thing that’s clear is that Utah wants to play, and that mentality extends to the entire community. With 20 inches of snow on their home field at Dumke Family Softball Stadium before hosting Arizona State the weekend of April 7, it wasn’t just the field crew that went to work.

Associate head coach DJ Gasso tweeted, “I can’t thank each and every person that came to help shovel snow the past two days (enough). From the facility/staff of the U, players, parents and even boyfriends of the players!”

The Utes went on to take the series from the Sun Devils, then swept then-No. 5 Stanford at home capped by back-to-back walk-off comebacks.

This year, their goal is to stay away from the bubble and “step over the line,” which is a saying seen on their batting practice tops this season.

“You can’t control if anyone respects you or not, so why don’t we get in the driver’s seat?” Hogue said. “Step way over that line, don’t just barely step over that line.”

That requires a growth mindset from the top down. Amy Hogue is one of six Pac-12 head coaches leading their alma mater. Now in her 16th season, the program’s all-time wins leader surpassed 400 victories and over 600 overall as a head coach. Even with her success, she remains open to new ideas.

Gasso, son of six-time national champion Oklahoma head softball coach Patty Gasso, and assistant coach Paige Parker, a pitcher who won two of those Oklahoma championships, brought an offseason concept from OU and introduced the 1176 Challenge. Grueling workouts took place at Utah's field, in the weight room and on the track, representing the 1,176 miles between Dumke and Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City, where the Women's College World Series is played.

“The players have said they think of it anytime things get hard,” Hogue stated. “They built pride and joy with that toughness. It was the piece that felt like it was missing.”

This was also the first season ever that Hogue’s team chose not to vote for team captains. “We felt like it would wreck what they had going, so we have 23 leaders instead.”

They rely on a balance of power between veterans and young talent. All-American Ellessa Bonstrom returned for her fifth year, leading the Utes in multiple offensive categories and earning back-to-back Pac-12 Player of the Week titles in March. Meanwhile, Abby Dayton is the first Ute to earn Pac-12 Freshman of the Week honors in six years, having done it twice.

From top to bottom, they are all contributors to a longstanding culture that’s only getting better. Hogue played in two WCWS for the Utes in 1991 and 1994. Almost 30 years later, she believes they have all the pieces to do it again.

With a remaining schedule featuring No. 10 Washington, No. 2 UCLA and No. 15 Oregon before the inaugural Pac-12 Tournament, a gauntlet lies ahead first. But they’re ready.

“I don’t think anyone sleeps on the Utes anymore, and I’m happy about that,” said Hogue. “We saw it coming. It wasn’t a shock to us, but it’s fun to see the rest of the world see it.”

national championship trophy Photo by C. Morgan Engel_NCAA Photos via Getty Images.jpg

2023 Women's College World Series Preview

Oklahoma, Florida State, Tennessee, Alabama, Oklahoma State, Washington, Stanford and Utah will compete for a national title.

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