LAS VEGAS (UNLVRebels.com) – After months of preparation, UNLV Softball will officially get its 2018 season underway at home on Friday afternoon as they host the 11th Annual Sportco Kick Off Classic at Eller Media Stadium. The tournament will take place over three days, Feb. 9-11, with all games at Eller Media Stadium on UNLV’s campus. Teams participating in this year’s tournament include North Dakota State, Creighton, Minnesota, Utah Valley and Southern Utah. Overall, Eller Media Stadium will host 15 games over three days.
Friday will mark the UNLV head coaching debut of Kristie Fox, who came to Las Vegas after five years at the University of Texas – Arlington. The two-time All-American and NCAA National Champion at Arizona became one of the youngest head coaches in the country when she took over the Mavericks’ softball program at the age of 26. The San Diego native led UTA to five consecutive conference tournament appearances and an increase in win totals each season, including 31 wins and the program’s first postseason appearance since 2003 as the team competed in the National Invitational Softball Championship last year.
The Rebels open their 2018 slate with a doubleheader Friday afternoon, beginning at 3:45 p.m. with their second meeting all-time against North Dakota State, followed immediately by a matchup against Creighton, who the Rebels shutout 4-0 last year at Eller Media Stadium. Saturday will also feature a doubleheader with UNLV taking on No. 16/18 Minnesota and Utah Valley at 1:30 p.m. and 6 p.m., respectively. The Scarlet and Gray will wrap up opening weekend with a Sunday matinee game at 1:30 p.m. against Southern Utah, who the Rebels beat twice last season. North Dakota State and Minnesota were both NCAA tournament teams in 2017, and the Gophers are the reigning Big Ten Champions.
UNLV has 11 returning players for last year’s squad that all saw significant time a year ago. Fox will look to the seniors – Jade Yadao-Valdez, Janine Petmecky, Brooke Stover and Alyssa Navarro – to set the tone for a young squad. Yadao-Valdez and Petmecky bring multiple years of starting experience to the table, while Stover and Navarro also have a wealth of collegiate experience.
Petmecky, a Mountain West All-Conference Second Team selection in 2017, will return to the circle in 2018 after playing exclusively in the outfield a year ago. She led the Rebels in multiple offensive categories in 2017, including batting average (.344), at-bats (160), hits (55) and RBI (29). Yadao-Valdez will be a steady defensive presence in the infield on the hot corner, where she started every game last season. The senior from Hawaii was also productive at the plate, hitting .314 with 37 hits, 21 runs scored and a team-high 11 stolen bases. Stover started 20 games behind the plate last year, while Navarro started 51 of 52 games at first base and led the team in home runs with eight in her first season at UNLV.
The Rebels have a trio of juniors in Myranda Bueno, Kiley Harrison and Abby Howard, with Beuno in the outfield and Harrison and Howard both at the catcher position. Bueno made 47 starts at center in 2017 and had the fourth-best batting average on the team at .325, in addition to 40 hits, 24 runs scored, 11 RBI and her first career home run that came in a series win over eventual Mountain West Champions San Jose State last May. Harrison, a Las Vegas local, transferred back to her hometown prior to last season from Kent State and made 44 starts with a .224 batting average, 28 hits, 13 runs scored and 16 RBI.
With one season under their belts, the sophomores will look to make an even bigger contribution this year. Breana Burke and Charlie Masterson both saw valuable time in the circle, with Burke leading all pitchers with a 2.86 ERA to go along with a 4-4 record in nine starts and 21 total appearances. Masterson went 4-3 with a 3.38 ERA with four starts and 19 appearances. In the field, Reina Bondi played in the outfield in 27 games with 14 starts and was a base-stealing specialist, going a perfect 10-for-10 on the year. Emily Vela, primarily an infielder and pinch-hitter a year ago, could see time in the outfield this year too.
The Rebels’ roster also features seven newcomers, all freshmen. Fox expects to see contributions from this group, with the possibility of a few cracking the starting lineup. Samantha Diaz has taken reps at shortstop and could be a factor at the plate as she adjusts to the collegiate pace of the game. Mia Trejo has also seen time at first base throughout the fall and preseason, while Devynn Marshall has been in the rotation in the circle.
While the squad is young, each position group features solid experience and the potential to make significant strides in growth this year as that experience piles up. Fox is impressed with how the team has responded to the new coaching staff and a new culture. Her keyword for this season is confidence and she has seen her team’s confidence continue to develop since the fall.
Here’s what Fox sees from each position group heading into the season:
Pitching Staff: “I really like the progress that our pitching staff has made. They all bring something different to the table and our coaching staff is going to have to be smart with matchups and making changes at the right time.”
Infield: “The infield will consist of young players. Our main goal is to limit mistakes and be a strong support system for our pitching staff. Jade [Yadao-Valdez], our third baseman, has the most experience and we will need her to take a leadership role when it comes to defense and staying calm and collected. Our short stop has the potential to become one of the top players in the league both offensively and defensively. We need her to stay confident in the transition from travel ball to the college game as there will no doubt be ups and downs.”
Outfield: “The outfield will have some experience and we look to them to be a solid final line of defense.”
Offensively: “This year offensively we are concentrating on executing, situational hitting and taking advantage of opportunities our opponents provide. We are looking for our older more experienced players to provide an example and knowledge to our younger players especially as we head into conference play.”
Live stats for all five games are available at www.UNLVRebels.com. Live updates can also be found by following @UNLVSoftball on twitter. Links to watch single-camera streams of all five games are available at UNLVRebels.com as well.