By Nate Tenopir, Sports Editor
Winning seasons are something the UNO softball program has become accustomed to. Since 1988, the Mavs have had a winning season every year and average 42 wins per season during that span.
Coach Jean Scarpello and the UNO softball team have arguably the best program on campus. It should be no surprise then that Scarpello and the Mavs responded to the first year of Division I competition perhaps better than any other team at UNO.
Despite only five home games, trips to South Carolina, Florida and Texas and the first game against in-state rival Nebraska since 1982, the Mavs came through with a .571 winning percentage, taking 24 of their 42 games.
“It was a good first year for us,” Scarpello said about UNO’s first season as a D-I program. “Our players, I think, walk away feeling like they had some success and feeling like it’s a good stepping stone for us for next year.”
UNO’s 2012 featured 34 games against D-I opponents and a one-year membership into the Great Western Conference with Utah Valley, Houston Baptist and North Dakota. The Mavs’ went 18-16 in those 34 games and rolled off six wins in a row at an invite in Florida in mid-March.
The 18-16 record against Division I is even more impressive when you consider that UNO started the season with a four-game losing streak and was 4-8 through the first month of the season.
The Mavs then started 0-2 on the trip to Florida and the Rebel Spring Games 0-2 before rattling off six in a row. That streak helped UNO to go 14-8 the rest of the way against D-I teams.
“We set it up to see a lot of different levels because I wanted the players to get educated that way,” Scarpello said about the Mavs’ 2012 schedule. “D-I doesn’t mean it’s automatically better than where a top Division II team is. I think we went in with that mentality that this is a strategic move that we wanna do with the schedule to make sure they’re (the players) educated.”
The 4-8 start shows that it was a little bit of a learning process. Even junior pitcher Dana Elsasser, named GWC Pitcher of the Year and All-GWC First Team took a little bit to get going.
Elsasser piled up 151 innings en route to going 13-9 and posting a 1.07 ERA. But in her first five appearances, Elsasser gave up 11 earned runs, 29 hits and walked 16.
The Hershey, Neb. native then caught fire and only allowed 12 earned runs in her next 22 appearances. Elsasser finished the season with eight shutouts, allowed just .196 hitting average against and had the fifth-best ERA in all of Division I.
“We knew Dana was going to be good, but Dana also had to see that she could handle this level as well,” Scarpello said. “You saw her grow through the year as well as…the wins started coming, the shutouts, there was confidence building every single time she’d step out onto the mound.”
Elsasser ended 2012 with 95 strikeouts, only 32 walks and even earned two saves along the way.
“That helped our players around her too because they thought ‘oh we do have a pitcher who can do this,”‘ Scarpello said about Elsasser gaining more and more confidence throughout the season. “I think Dana, we knew she was good but without throwing her that much last year, it was not a surprise, but maybe a pleasant situation to see her grow so fast this year. How she steps out on the mound next year is gonna be a huge advantage [for us].”
Elsasser was one of five Mavs who received all conference honors. Catcher Lauren Larson and designated player Amber Lutmer joined Elsasser on the first team. Pitcher Kat Barrow, third baseman Molly Negrete and outfielder Lindsay Redding took home All-GWC Second Team honors.
Larson started all 42 games at catcher, gunned down five of 14 runners in stolen-base attempts and hit .304 for the season with 42 hits to lead the team. Barrow started in five of her 20 appearances during her freshman season compiling a 9-7 record and a 1.62 ERA, second-best in the GWC behind Elsasser.
Negrete hit .281, scored 10 runs, knocked in nine and started all 42 games at third, earning a .964 fielding percentage along the way. Redding started all 42 games in right field, recording a perfect 1.000 field percentage for the season.
The junior was seventh in the conference with a .309 batting average, led the team with 12 multi-hit games and stole 14 bases on 17 attempts. Redding’s 14 steals were the only double digit steals total for any player in the GWC.
But Lutmer provided perhaps the biggest offensive spark. Lutmer was third in the conference with a .333 batting average, finished tied for second with 11 home runs and led the way with 43 RBIs.
“We knew she was a great hitter at D-II, but she needed to work through some D-II maturity as a hitter…mental toughness,” Scarpello said about Lutmer’s big offensive year. “She found that throughout the year and really worked hard on her swing, making it a little more simple. You can see that she’s just a powerful kid and now she goes in with a whole different confident mentality as well.”
Lutmer tied a school record for RBIs in a game when she drove in eight runs with two grand slams on consecutive at-bats against South Dakota. In seven games from March 28 to April 11 Lutmer slammed 9 home runs and knocked in 24 runs. In four of those seven, Lutmer had multiple home run games.
In midseason competition at the GWC cluster, UNO went 3-3 and earned the second seed for the season-ending conference tournament. However when the Mavs got to the conference tournament, they lost a tough 3-1 game to Houston Baptist fall into the loser’s bracket.
The Huskies got on the board right away in the top of the first, but UNO tied it up an inning later and the two teams remained deadlocked behind excellent starting pitching. A single, bunt single and sacrifice by Houston Baptist had two runners on with one out.
A sacrifice fly and hit scored both runners to give the Huskies a 3-1 lead and stood up as the final when the Mavs failed to score in the bottom of the inning. UNO bounced back to avoid elimination later in the day in a 10-inning win over North Dakota.
Lutmer provided the heroics with a bases-loaded single scoring two in the top of the 10th to win 4-2 and push the Mavs into another elimination game the next day against Utah Valley. UNO led 2-0 but gave up the lead and found themselves behind 3-2 off of three errors in the top of the fourth.
The Mavs got behind 4-2 before scoring two in the bottom of the fifth and forcing another extra-inning game. The game went two more innings, and the Wolverines got the upper hand by leading off the ninth with back-to-back singles.
A sac bunt moved the runners over and Barrow was able to get the next hitter on a pop up. But Utah Valley cashed in for a run when the next hitter singled to left field.
UNO went down in order in the bottom half of the inning to end the season.
“We were very disappointed with our end because we thought once we got playing in it (the GWC Tournament) and the way Dana (Elsasser) was throwing we thought we could have went down to the tournament and finished even higher than what we did,” Scarpello said.
“It was just a couple timely hits that we didn’t have, a couple errors that cost us. But overall it was an educational experience.”
It’s certainly not the same level of success the program has gotten used to over the years. But regardless of the disappointment in how the GWC Tournament ended, Scarpello feels the success her team had in an irregular 2012 will translate well to 2013 and a full Summit League schedule.
“I think our kids are really excited,” Scarpello said about getting into full conference membership next year. “The difference with our team this year though is we will have 10 returners, eight new ones, but the eight new ones coming in are very athletic…they have some speed, they have some power.”
“If anything, we need to mold the team quick[ly] as far as chemistry because that’s been huge for us. But I think we have options this [next] year, I think there’s gonna be friendly competition on the field. I think we’re gonna be able to push each other and have options.”