The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

    Setting their sights higher

    Before the UW-Eau Claire’s softball season started, first baseman Sarah Fern said head coach Leslie Huntington gave the team laminated cards to remind them of their ultimate goal this season.

    On one side was a picture of Gelein Field. On the other: the Div. III national championship trophy.
    Huntington has not minced words about her expectations for this season.

    “We’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about our goal of playing in the national championship this year, especially because it’s going to be at
    Carson Park,” Huntington said. “That’s kind of the purpose behind everything we’re doing.”

    Such lofty expectations are certainly in order for a Blugolds team coming off a 33-14 season and a Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference regular season championship, the team’s first since 2006. The team ultimately lost to Carthage College in regionals.

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    Eau Claire did lose four seniors from last year’s team, all of whom were at one point WIAC first-team all-conference performers. Catcher Nikki Bromelkamp, pitcher Ashley Meinen and shortstop Emily Muller were first-team performers last year, while second baseman Jess Freagon was a 2011 first-team honoree.

    Huntington said replacing all four will be a challenge, but first mentioned Muller as a particularly difficult loss.

    “She was really kind of our field general on the infield, really had the infield on the same page all the time defensively,” Huntington said. “What we’ve seen in practice so far is we don’t have anybody yet who is quite at that level.”

    The job of replacing Muller at shortstop seems to have fallen to sophomore Taylor Pierce, another 2012 WIAC first-team performer. Pierce, who last year saw time in the outfield and as the designated player, said she hasn’t played shortstop since little league.

    She said learning base coverages and cutoff assignments has been the most challenging part of the position switch, but she said she plans to work as hard as possible to make the position hers on a permanent basis.

    As a first baseman, Fern said she is able to observe the entire infield. She said Pierce has performed well, both in practice and in the team’s season-opening doubleheader sweep of St. Benedict (Minn.).

    “Since those first two games it’s really been very clear to me that she is going to fit that role perfectly,” Fern said.
    Despite having to replace three regulars from last year’s lineup, the Blugolds’ offense still appears to be dangerous.

    The team scored 16 combined runs in the victories over St. Benedict on 21 hits, including a home run from Amanda Fischer, yet another 2012 first-team performer.

    Fischer hit leadoff in those first two games this year and it appears that will be her spot in the lineup to lose.

    Fischer said she has mostly been a middle of the order hitter during her softball career, but said she feels comfortable making the move to the top.

    “Being a leadoff hitter hones in that you have to watch every pitch and you need to be really focused, so I like that a lot,” Fischer said.

    Fischer and Fern, who led last year’s team with nine and eight home runs respectively, should continue to provide the Blugolds with power.
    Pierce also has some pop in her bat, finishing with 12 extra base hits and a .487 slugging percentage last season.

    The Blugolds also have quite a bit of team speed, as second baseman Jenny Hess (29 stolen bases), Pierce (17) and Fischer (10) all reached double
    figures in steals last year.

    Fern said freshman outfielder Abby Hansen could have a big impact with her speed as well.
    Huntington said the balance throughout the lineup makes it the kind of offense she really likes to have.

    “We’ve either got kids that can hit it over the fence or we’ve got kids that can drop a bunt and beat it out,”
    Huntington said.

    One player who could be a wild card for Eau Claire this season is third baseman Emily Haluska.

    Two seasons ago, she hit .406 and was named to the WIAC all-conference team, but slipped last season to .242.

    Huntington praised Haluska’s defensive ability and offensive mechanics and said a good season from Haluska could be a key to the team’s success.
    In the pitcher’s circle, junior Emma Wishau is the unquestioned leader of the staff after going 15-7 with a 1.70 earned run average in 160.2 innings last season.

    Meinen’s graduation has opened the door for sophomore Laura Raflik to secure a larger role on the staff. Last year, Raflik appeared in 14 games, making one start, and posted a sparkling 1.21 ERA in 29 innings.

    Raflik, who said she learned a lot about both the mental and physical aspects of pitching from Wishau and Meinen last year, threw five shutout innings in her first start this year against St. Benedict.

    She said having a full season under her belt helped her prepare for this season.

    “Just knowing how Eau Claire teaches their pitches made it a lot easier for me to work on it,” Raflik said. “I knew what was expected of me.”

    Huntington said junior Emily Ruegemer, who picked up the other victory against St. Benedict, sophomore Nikki Brooks and freshman Zana Lorbetske will also be in the mix for innings this year.

    Fern said it will be important for the team to not look too far ahead during the season because of the excitement of hosting the championship tournament.

    She said the team needs to stay focused on the process rather than the outcome to keep them thinking day to day and game to game.

    The players share Huntington’s confidence and belief in the team. Those laminated cards reflect exactly how far the team thinks it can go.

    “The way this team is gelling together is just really awesome,” Fischer said. “I expect a lot from this team and I’m really excited.”

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    Setting their sights higher