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Utah softball: Utes seek staying power as a contender after standout season

Published June 2, 2017 9:55 pm

Utah softball • They lose three starting infielders but two star pitchers will be back.
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Amy Hogue was greeted by a man she did not know on a recent stop at a gas station.

"It's been real fun watching your team play this season," he said. "Congrats."

As Utah's softball coach, Hogue gets to know a lot of people close to the program: players, family members, alumni. This stranger was none of those things — just a well-wisher who happened to pick up on the Utes' (37-16) spring campaign and run to Super Regionals.

"That probably happens to football and basketball coaches all the time, but it's new for us," she said. "And that's what we want: newfound fans who aren't necessarily connected to the program but just enjoy it."

The resurrection of Utah softball is complete in many ways. While the team fell short of a stated goal to return to the College World Series for the first time since 1994, it also finished with its best winning percentage ever in Pac-12 play (59.1 percent) and hosted an NCAA regional for the first time at Dumke Family Stadium.

Hogue said she's received a lot of attention from past Utes since the postseason began, telling her how proud they are of the program's achievements, including elbowing into the top 15 nationally. Her vision is to see that level continue — and perhaps even reach a higher tier — in the years to come while establishing the Utes as a consistent powerhouse.

"I have a bunch of confidence in our ability to maintain the status we've reached," she said. "We want to keep that support."

It will be a challenge that the coaching staff already is anxious about. Among seven seniors, the Utes will be replacing three key infielders, including two-time Pac-12 player of the year Hannah Flippen. Not even the most precocious freshman could hope to fill those shoes.

Still, there are foundational pieces in place for next season, starting with Utah's dynamic pitching duo Katie Donovan and Miranda Viramontes, who were both all-Pac-12 performers. Viramontes dealt with injury for the latter half of the season, and Hogue believes it will be a solid start if both find their best form as seniors.

Replacing seniors in the batting order will be harder. Even beyond Flippen, who holds several significant batting records, shortstop Anissa Urtez and first baseman Bridget Castro helped comprise one of the best lineups in the country. While Alyssa Barrera, Heather Bowen, Kelly Martinez and Breonna Castenada give the Utes something to work with offensively, there will have to be some incoming freshmen who are ready to step in the box against Pac-12 pitching.

"It's tough to lose those seniors," Hogue said. "I don't know that I want to think about that right now."

Next season will test Hogue's reputation as a builder and developer. It's likely that there will be underclassmen who will be learning their positions for the first time at any level — not unlike the group of graduating seniors when they first started at Utah.

But now the bar is higher. If anything, Hogue hopes that the past season has helped those who return get used to the idea that there is no one player Utah can lean on. As the Utes won key conference series, they had clutch hits up and down the lineup or different defensive stars make game-saving plays. Anyone could be the star on a given weekend.

And that's the approach Utah will need going into the future as it hopes to establish itself as a perennial ranked team instead of one boosted by a stellar senior class. The next step is continuing a culture where players don't look to others to win big games — they look within.

"We have to win collectively," she said. "We have to continue to work hard and play together like we did this last year to have that ability to be happy no matter who turns around and picks up the game for you."

kgoon@sltrib.com Twitter: @kylegoon —

Utah softball

Finished 37-16, lost to Washington in Super Regionals

Key losses • 2B Hannah Flippen, SS Anissa Urtez, 1B Bridget Castro, OF Kay Kay Fronda

Key returners • P Miranda Viramontes, P Katie Donovan, 3B Heather Bowen, OF Alyssa Barrera, C Kelly Martinez






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