By Dave Wagner: CNJ sports writer
PORTALES — After two stints as “interim” coach, Amber Daniel finally has that title on a permanent basis for the Eastern New Mexico University softball program.
And while Daniel has more of “her” players with 13 newcomers heading into the 2008 campaign, she said it has always felt like her team. Seven of last year’s top 10 players return for the Zias, who open the season on Friday in the St. Mary’s Classic at San Antonio.
Daniel knows it’s challenging to recruit to a place like Portales, so she looks more for hard-working players with potential.
“All my returners wanted to play for me,” said Daniel, 25, who coached the team in 2005 when Armando Quiroz suffered a broken ankle early in the season and took over again in March of last year when he resigned to return to his home in Arizona. “The kind of athletes that come here are the kind of athletes I want.”
The Zias went 29-27 in 2007, including 11-13 in the Lone Star Conference South. And while they were competitive, Daniel said her team has higher aspirations.
Returning players include sophomore outfielder Alex Mayo Otis (.436, 37 RBIs), the No. 4 hitter in the LSC last season; sophomore second baseman Rebecca Quinones (.337, 50 RBIs); senior first baseman Anna Herhkowitz (.306) and sophomore third baseman Casandra McCommons (.241).
Senior Nicole Dickson (16-9, 3.87 ERA) and sophomore Kristen Cruickshank (11-14, 5.26) return to the circle, and Cruickshank also contributed a .378 batting average with a team-best 10 homers while seeing time at first base.
Another sophomore, Michelle Anderson (.320, 9 HRs, 42 RBIs), handled most of the catching duties in 2007.
“We definitely want to be more consistent than last year, and I think we will be,” said Anderson, who should get help behind the plate this year from senior Tawna Tagaloa and sophomore Ashley Oliver. “It’s nice to have that help. I’m pretty confident in my fellow catchers.”
Anderson, who could also fill the designated player’s role, said she hopes to improve on last year’s numbers.
“I’m looking forward to having another pretty good hitting year,” she said. “I worked hard during the fall, and I think I’ll be more consistent.”
Among newcomers being counted on are Jena Rue at shortstop, Laura Thompson and Josette Aguirre in center field, Jessica Pacheco in right field, and Natalie Woodside and Brittney Zamora in the circle. Infielder Brianna Darnell, who saw regular duty at third base as a freshman in 2006 but sat out virtually all of last season with an injury redshirt, is also back.
Daniel said the Zias should have depth at most positions.
“Having depth and knowing what to expect going in, it’s great to have that leadership,” she said.
1-3 — at St. Mary’s Classic (1 vs. Cameron, 8 a.m., and vs. St. Edward’s, 2:24 p.m.; 2 vs. St. Mary’s, 10:15 a.m., and vs. Midwestern State, 12:30 p.m.; 3 — vs. Texas A&M-International, 9 a.m.; 5 — College of the Southwest (2), noon; 8 — New Mexico Highlands (2), noon; 9 — Oklahoma Panhandle State (2), noon; 14-16 — Division II Leadoff Classic at Phoenix (14 — vs. Montana State-Billings, 2:30 p.m., and vs. Cal State San Bernadino, 7:30 p.m.; 15 vs. Western Washington, 11 a.m.; 15-16 bracket play TBA); 22-23 — West Texas A&M Lady Buff Invitational (22 vs. Fort Hays State, 9:30 a.m., and vs. Oklahoma City, 2 p.m.; 23 bracket play TBA); 29 — at Texas A&M-Kingsville (2), 4 p.m.-x.
1 ‚ at Texas A&M-Kingsville, noon-x; 7 — Angelo State (2), 1 p.m.-x; 8 — Angelo State, 1 p.m.-x; 14 — at Tarleton State (2), 1 p.m.-x; 15 — at Tarleton State, 11 a.m.-x; 19 — at Oklahoma Panhandle State (2), noon; 28-30 — Lone Star Conference crossover tournament at Irving Texas (28 — vs. East Central, 9 a.m.; vs. Southwestern Oklahoma, 11 a.m., and vs. Northeastern State, 4 p.m.; 29 — vs. Central Oklahoma, 1 p.m., and vs. Midwestern State, 3 p.m.; 30 — vs. Cameron, 9 a.m., and vs. Southeastern Oklahoma, 11 a.m.).
4-5 — Oklahoma City tournament (4 vs. Oklahoma City, 9 a.m., and vs. Mid-America Nazarene, 2 p.m.; 5 bracket play TBA); 8 — at College of the Southwest (2), 1 p.m.; 11 — West Texas A&M (2), 2 p.m.-x; 12 — West Texas A&M, noon-x; 18 — at Abilene Christian, 6 p.m.-x; 19 — at Abilene Christian (2), noon-x; 22 — at New Mexico Highlands (2), 1 p.m.; 25 — Texas Woman’s, 2 p.m.-x; 26 — Texas Woman’s (2), noon-x.
All Times Mountain. x-Denotes Lone Star Conference South Division games.
1 Jena Rue, INF, So., Albuquerque; 2 Haley Hays, INF/OF, Jr., Wichita Falls, Texas; 3 Ashley Oliver, C/OF, So., Hilltop Lakes, Texas; 4 Shea Fowler, OF, Jr., Bowie, Texas; 5 Cara Brydle, INF, Jr., Chandler, Ariz.; 6 Kassandra Sanchez, OF, Fr., Albuquerque; 7 Anna Hershkowitz, INF, Sr., Scottsdale, Ariz.; 8 Laura Thompson, OF, Jr., Towcester Northants, England.
9 Brianna Darnell, INF, So., Farmington; 10 Michelle Anderson, C, So., Sierra Vista, Ariz.; 11 Alex Mayo Otis, OF, So., Phoenix, Ariz.; 12 Casandra McCommons, INF, So., Tucson, Ariz.; 13 Brittney Zamora, RHP, So., Las Cruces; 14 Kristen Cruickshank, P/1B, So., Glendale, Ariz.; 15 Sarah Spencer, OF, Fr., Las Cruces; 16 Josette Aguirre, OF, Fr., Moriarty.
17 Rebecca Quinones, INF, So., Gilbert, Ariz.; 19 Natalie Woodside, LHP/IF, Jr., Saskatoon, Saskatchewan; 20 Jessica Pacheco, OF, Jr., Avondale, Arizl; 22 Brittany Regalado, RHP, Jr., Roswell; 24 Tawna Lei Tagaloa, C, Sr., Diamond Bar, Calif.; 25 Amanda Terry, IF, Fr., Portales.