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Utah Is Out To Prove Doubters Wrong

(Photo by Brady Vernon)

Utah was picked to finish last in the Pac-12 Softball Coaches Poll before the season. How did the Utes respond to start the season? They opened up with a win over then-12th ranked Northwestern and finished the weekend 5-0. The last time the Utes had five straight wins to open the season, they made it to Super Regionals in 2017.

What was the key? Staying true to their motto. Playing Green.

“Playing Green means doing everything possible that helps the team,” Barrera said in a statement. “Communication, playing hard when you’re hurt, giving your all in the dugout. It helps us stay unified and make us better.”

Coach Amy Hogue explained that one player earns a prize for sticking to the team’s motto. As voted on by the players, one Ute will have the honor of wearing green shoelaces each week.

To Hogue, it was clear from the time of beginning preparations for the season that her team had a different mindset this year, and especially in the circle. Utah’s conference-high 6.30 team earned run average couldn’t be repeated. The players took it into their own hands to fix it.

Last season, Hogue thought her team was firing on all cylinders during the fall. But once the Christmas break came, things fell off. The players returned in January and Utah was behind, in her opinion. The Utes lost early with very little progression throughout the season to show for it. That changed leading into 2020.

“It was tough for these kids to lose a lot last year,” Hogue told Softball America during a phone interview. “This year we had a lot better December after we trained really hard in the fall. Now we’re playing pretty well. I think that’s made a difference. It was evident in the weight room and (through) all the tests that we did that they were a lot better.”

Utah’s plan for the pitching staff is to rely on sophomore Sydney Sandez and freshman Mary Beth Feldman, and then to incorporate freshman utility player Halle Morris into the mix. Hogue is excited to see Sandez’s advancement because she knows her pitcher's talent doesn’t reflect her numbers from last year.

Then there’s Feldman, the new hope in the circle. Everyone, including Hogue and the Utah staff, had big question marks coming into the season about the team’s pitching. They trotted out the freshman in Utah’s first game of the season against Northwestern’s Danielle Williams, 2019’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Feldman not only went pitch-for-pitch with Williams, she won the duel. That helped set the tone for the weekend.

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“We got to see what kind of guts she has coming right out of the gates and being our first starter of the first game against a ranked team,” Hogue said. “We showed a lot of confidence in her and she came out to show us that it wasn’t all talk. That she feels ready, doesn’t feel nervous and that she’s ready to fight for the Utes.”

Hogue didn’t want to forget about catcher Katie Faulk. She’s just one of the many pieces that guides a younger staff and helps control the runners on base. There are other talents to Utah as well. Hogue says the team is faster this year and has more versatility at the plate.

Barrera, a Pac-12 second team honoree last season, leads the Utes in most offensive categories after the first weekend. She made a game-changing, leaping grab against Kansas to kill a late-inning rally.

Utah heads to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico this weekend for a slate of games that includes No. 5 Texas and No. 19 Tennessee. It’ll be good experience for a youthful Ute squad, but there’s no reason to believe they can’t compete now.

“We have so many young kids, but we’re pretty talented,” Hogue said. “There’s no time like the present to go after it. And that’s their mentality.”

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