By Derek Turner
Each of the last two seasons for Central Connecticut’s softball team have been record breakers; 29 wins in 2011 and 31 wins last year are the two highest totals in school history. But in 2013 the Blue Devils won’t settle for anything less than a Northeast Conference championship.
Last season CCSU narrowly qualified for its second straight NEC tournament, missing it by one game with an 11-9 conference record.
“I have that bitter taste in my mouth from last year,” said senior Nicole Springer, who wants a conference title in her final season in New Britain.
This year’s team is expected to be the most complete team Central has ever had. Coach Jeff Franquet has built up this program to a point where he can use any one of the 27 ladies on his roster and have the confidence they will do their job.
“Our goal and our vision for this year is to get better and break more records: team records and offensive records,” said Franquet. “But one of the most important things is to keep bringing better people in here.”
This may be the most balanced and talented team Central has ever assembled and the newcomers have a lot to do with it. There are 13 new players on the roster and according to Franquet, five or six will play on a regular basis. The opening day lineup will boast a freshman at catcher, shortstop, third base and in the outfield.
Catcher and shortstop are often referred to as the most important positions on the diamond. Hannah Cooper and Kenya McVey have proven to their teammates they are ready.
“She’s [Cooper] very strong, very smart; knows what she’s doing behind the plate,” said Springer.
McVey has unbelievable range according to Springer and makes the throw across the diamond with ease.
Sophomore pitcher Laura Messina is excited to be Cooper’s battery mate this season, moving last year’s catcher Tessa Brown to first base. Springer, who played first base last season, will spend more time in the circle this year, but Messina, the ace of the staff ,will still see a large majority of the innings.
“We have 50 games on the schedule and I would say Laura will probably start 35,” said Franquet.
Messina is coming off easily the best season in Central Connecticut history for a pitcher where she went 22-11 with a 2.01 ERA . Her 35 appearances tied a single season record. She set three other pitching records in her first season. The 22 wins put her sixth on the career list, more than halfway to the record. Her 219.2 innings pitched is the most in a single season and she recorded 207 strikeouts, third all-time. Messina enters the 2013 season with seven shutouts, needing only four to break the record.
“If our pitching is good, we’re going to win a lot of games. She’s as good as they get,” said Franquet on Messina.
This team does not have captains because Franquet does not believe in them. They have improved as a team since they started practicing in the fall and continued to work hard all winter to get ready for the season.
“We have 27 great people on this team,” said Franquet. “They all have great personalities and all bring something different to the table, but that dynamic and their work ethic will hopefully spin us into the best year ever here.”
The offense this year will be led by seniors Kelsey Barlow and Springer as well as junior Arielle Bruno. Last season Springer tied Barlow and two others for the single season home run record with 10 and tied the single season RBI record with 45. Barlow enters her final season with a .483 career slugging percentage and 74 runs batted in. She is also one home run away from tying the career record of 20 held by Pam Shifrin.
Bruno currently holds a .326 career batting average while slugging .494 with 10 home runs. Her 77 runs scored ranks sixth all-time and she will easily move up the total bases list where she currently sits at 173.
The snow has kept the team off the field for the entire winter, so when the Blue Devils leave for Florida on Thursday and practice at the University of South Florida, it will be their first time on a field since the fall season.
“We all want to play; everybody is restless and just wants to get out there,” said Messina.
The team is down to working out and practicing five days a week, with Wednesdays being the off day and just lifting on Thursdays, but there is nothing like getting back on the field and finally playing a team in a different uniform once again.
“The athletes are here, the pitching is here; you have to have a little luck at times and you have to win a couple games you weren’t supposed to win,” said Franquet.
Central Connecticut opens the 2013 season as a part of the USF Tournament in Tampa on March 1 when they play Georgia State and Stephen F. Austin. They will play a total of five games in Florida before coming back home for their scheduled home opener on March 5 vs. Yale.
The Blue Devils will then head back on the road to Coppin State and then the Hampton Tournament. They return home March 13 for a double-header at Hartford, before playing Hofstra and UConn at the Hofstra Tournament.
Holy Cross comes to CCSU on March 27 just before conference play begins two days later vs. Bryant at home. Of the final 24 games this season, 14 will be played in New Britain with Senior Day scheduled for April 27 vs. Robert Morris.
Central will close out the regular season with an out-of-conference matchup at Maryland-East Shore on May 1, just before the NEC tournament.