By Dave Wagner
PORTALES — In the Lone Star Conference South Division preseason poll, first-year Eastern New Mexico University softball coach Kevin Blaskowski picked his own squad for last place in the six-team circuit.
It’s not that he doesn’t have faith in the Zias, who are coming off a 24-29 season (4-16 South) under interim coach Ron Landschoot. Instead, Blaskowski was hoping to keep the heat off his relatively young squad.
“I’m happy with the way we’re working,” said Blaskowski, a North Dakota native who spent the last five seasons building a new program at Division II Southern Arkansas. “I believe that’ll be a key for us all year.”
Only eight of the 21 Zias on the active roster are upperclassman, and only eight were on last year’s squad — including all four seniors and four sophomores.
ENMU, which opens with an 11 a.m. twin bill against Colorado State-Pueblo on Wednesday at Zia Softball Field, will rely heavily on senior pitchers Maegan Rhoten (9-9, 2.86 ERA in 2003) and Lauren King (10-13, 2.70).
Blaskowski thinks his staff will be deep, with junior college transfer Chris McGee and freshman Ashley Maier behind the two veterans. Also back is sophomore Tonie Hutzler (2-0, 3.20 in 19 innings).
Rhoten split time between left field and first base last year when not pitching, but this season she’ll play first when not in the circle.
“I think we’re going to be all right,” said Rhoten, who hit .326 with seven homers and 30 RBIs a year ago. “Coach Blaskowski is doing a great job. I think we just have to come to play as a team, and know we have the ability to be good.”
The Zias’ top two hitters from 2003 are not back — Kim Barajas (.450, 5 HR, 35 RBI) is sitting out the year with an elbow injury, while outfielder Nikki Gay (.425, 11, 34) did not return to school after earning the division’s freshman of the year award. Gay tied the school’s single-season home run record, and set single-season and career records in stolen bases.
Blaskowski said the Zias won’t have the power of a year ago, when they whacked 31 homers, but he thinks they’ll have better overall speed even without Gay.
Courtney McClaskey, a transfer from Morningside College in Iowa, will be the No. 1 catcher, backed up by returnee Liz Navarro (.131, 0, 8) and newcomer Cassandra Gonzales.
When Rhoten is pitching, Blaskowski said returning sophomore Cindy Hess (.188 in 16 at-bats) will play first. Junior college transfer Natalie Tipton is ticketed for second base, with senior returnee Tracy Jordan (.254, 0, 8) and newcomer Kristin MacRunnels behind her.
Senior Misty Torrez (.264, 0, 7) returns at shortstop, with Clovis High grad Mary Maes, a transfer from Eastern Arizona College, at third.
“It’s a new team, with a new coach and new girls,” said Torrez, a team co-captain with Rhoten. “We have high expectations, and we’re going to do everything to meet them.
“I don’t think we’re fearful of anybody. We’re just ready to play our game.”
Sophomore Katie McDermott (.225, 6, 21) provides some pop and may alternate between third and the designated player role with Maes.
The outfield is expected to consist of freshman Dani Flores in left, junior college transfer Kyleigh Harris in center and either sophomore Elizabeth Hawkins, a transfer from NCAA Division III George Fox University in Oregon, or freshman Blair Campbell in right.
All Times Mountain
4 — Colorado State-Pueblo (2), 11 a.m.; 6-8 — at South Central Region crossover at Las Vegas, Nev., TBA; 13-14 — at Lone Star Conference First-Pitch Tourney, Irving, Texas, TBA; 20 — at Western New Mexico (2), noon; 21 — at Western New Mexico (2), 11 a.m.; 27 — at Southwestern Oklahoma Classic (1 p.m. vs. Washburn, 3:30 p.m. vs. Ouachita Baptist); 28 — at Southwestern Oklahoma Classic (1 p.m. vs. Oklahoma Panhandle State, 3:30 p.m. vs. Emporia State).
5-7 — at NFCA Division II Lead-off Classic, Irving, Texas, TBA; 13-14 — at Tucson (Ariz.) Invitational Games, TBA; 19 — Angelo State (2), noon-x; 20 — Angelo State (2), noon-x; 26 — Texas Woman’s (2), noon-x; 27 — Texas Woman’s (2), noon-x.
2 — at Abilene Christian (2), 4 p.m.-x; 3 — at Abilene Christian (2), noon-x; 6 — at Univ. of New Mexico (2), 1 p.m.; 10 — at Oklahoma Panhandle State (2), 1 p.m.; 16 — Tarleton State (2), noon-x; 17 — Tarleton State (2), noon-x; 23 — at Texas A&M-Kingsville (2), 4 p.m.-x; 24 — at Texas A&M-Kingsville (2), 11 a.m.-x.
x-Denotes Lone Star Conference South Division games.
Freshmen (7): Dani Flores, OF, Loving; Ashley Maier, P, Spokane, Wash.; Cassandra Gonzales, C, Albuquerque; Kristin MacRunnels, IF, Canyon Country, Ca.; Blair Campbell, OF, Las Cruces; Melanie Martin, OF, Baytown, Texas; Stacey Gonzales, C/IF, Dumas, Texas.
Sophomores (6): Courtney McClaskey, C, Keller, Texas; Cindy Hess, OF, Surrey, B.C.; Elizabeth Hawkins, OF, Sandpoint, Idaho; Tracy Jordan, IF, Rosamond, Calif.; Tonie Hutzler, P, Castroville, Texas; Katie McDermott, IF, Albuquerque.
Juniors (4): Kyleigh Harris, OF, Wilcox, Ariz.; Natalie Tipton, Jr., Chandler, Ariz.; Mary Maez, IF, Clovis; Chris McGee, P, Phoenix.
Seniors (4): Lauren King, P, La Mirada, Calif.; Misty Torrez, IF, Flagstaff, Ariz.; Liz Navarro, C, San Antonio; Maegan Rhoten, P/IF, Albuquerque.
Head coach: Kevin Blaskowski (1st year). Assistant coach: Tiffany Koch. Graduate assistant: Vicki Davis. Student trainer: Kim Barajas.