By Nate Tenopir, Editor-in-Chief
Before the school year began, there was speculation Omaha softball might have been the program best equipped to succeed in the first year of full-time Summit League participation. Conference head coaches confirmed that belief last Friday when the Mavs were voted fifth out of nine teams in The Summit League preseason poll.
UNO received 38 points in the poll, just two points away from fourth-place Kansas City and six from third-place Western Illinois. North Dakota State received eight of nine first place votes, and is the overwhelming favorite to win the conference with 64 total points.
The Bison are four-time defending champions of the league and compiled a 38-22 (18-6 Summit) record last season. The other first-place vote went to Fort Wayne, likely because coaches are not allowed to vote for their own team.
The Mastodons will enter 2013 after going 45-14 a season ago and 17-7 in conference play. IPFW welcomes back a league high five All-Conference selections from a season ago.
But NDSU brings back three award winnters including the Pitcher and Freshman of the Year Krista Menke. The Bison dominated the Mastodons a year ago going 4-1. North Dakota State Swept Fort Wayne at home, suffered their only loss to IPFW in the first game of the conference final, then beat the Mastodons a few hours later to win The Summit League tournament.
But against the established stars of the conference, the Mavs compare rather favorably. Menke went 25-13 in 2012 with a 2.36 ERA and 210 strikeouts.
UNO’s Dana Elsasser was the Great West Conference Pitcher of the Year for the lone season the Mavs were in the Great West. Elsasser went 13-9 with two saves, had a D-I top five ERA of 1.07 and fanned an even 100 hitters. At one point in late April, Elsasser’s ERA dipped below 0.80, the lowest mark in all of D-I at the time.
The Hershey, Neb. native only allowed two home runs all season and held opponents to a .196 batting average.
On the offensive side it was Amber Lutmer who provided the pop for an Omaha offense that averaged 3.5 runs per game. Lutmer led the Mavs in batting average (.333), slugging percentage (.685), on base percentage (.456), runs batted in (43), home runs (11), total bases (76) and walks (22).
In a game against South Dakota on April 4, Lutmer hit grand slams in back-to-back at bats. In a seven-game stretch from March 28 to April 11, she hit nine home runs and had 24 RBIs.
But what might be most surprising about Lutmer is her walk to strikeout ratio. Although she’s considered a power hitter, Lutmer walked 22 times while striking out just 21, the best ratio on the team.
Overall Omaha will return four of its top five hitters, its top stolen base threat in Lindsay Redding, its top five players in fielding percentage and all three pitchers.
With 9-of-12 games at home against the teams voted above them in the preseason poll, UNO will get the chance to prove it belongs with a slight advantage.
The Mavs face NDSU in the first conference series of the season March 15-16, follow it up with another series at home the next weekend against IPFW, then face Western Illinois in the last Summit League home series of the year April 27-28.
The season starts this Friday with a five-game trip to Wilmington, N.C. and the UNCW Beach Blast. The trip out east is followed up with four more five-game tournaments and invites in Texas, Mississippi, Colorado and Tennessee.
Omaha will not be at home until a March 12 date with in-school rival Nebraska. Last year the Mavs played the Huskers close, going 0-2 in two one-run games.