By Lee Walter / Sports Information Assistant
WILLIMANTIC, Conn. -- The 2017 softball season was a rebuilding one for Eastern Connecticut State University, with many newcomers filling key spots all over the field.
Head coach Diana Pepin, now in her 17th season, knew the team would likely take some lumps as new starters filled roles at catcher, three infield positions and left field, and also two starting two pitching slots mixing in with the team's six returning seniors.
Heading into the 2018 season, Pepin feels like that experience will help propel the Warriors back toward success. Although consecutive 15-25 overall records have followed six straight Little East Conference regular-season championships, the Warriors managed to play better in Little East action last year, resulting in a share of first place at 8-6 with three other teams. Eastern then picked up two extra-inning, one-run victories in the LEC postseason tournament, leaving the young returning players with a positive feeling heading into the 2018 season.
Pepin, two wins shy of 400 in her coaching career, is looking toward the potential achievements of young players on this year's roster. A former four-player in the program and member of the last national championship team, Pepin has seen glimpses of an up-and-coming roster so far this preseason, with the offense showing a better plan of attack. Pepin also stated that there are several talented freshmen in this year's class that are pushing for starting positions. Of the 17 players on the roster, 12 are freshmen and sophomores, and they will clearly make up the majority of the starting line-up.
In the pitching circle this season, Pepin has plenty of options, with the return of sophomore lefties Morgan Sanson (Thomaston) and Jacky Arndt (Chelmsford, MA) and a potential key righty in freshman Morgan Bolduk (Vernon). Sanson and Arndt gained plenty of experience last year (Sanson tying the program season record with 20 relief appearances) alongside graduated righty Samantha Valentine, while Bolduk comes in with very good command of several pitches.
Arndt and Sanson started the team's first two games in the LEC tournament last year, with Sanson winning one game as a starter (shutting out Keene State in eight innings in her first post-season start) and one as a reliever before dropping a complete-game 2-1 decision in the fourth round of the tournament that spelled the end of the Warriors' season. Sanson appeared in all four LEC tournament games as a freshman and did not allow an earned run in 19 2/3 innings over her first three appearances before giving up one in the season-ending loss.
Arndt, Sanson and Bolduc create the potentional for a three-headed pitching rotation, with sophomore righty Haleigh Cardello (Litchfield, NH) giving Pepin a fourth option to eat up additional innings.
At right: As a freshman in 2017, Megan Hodgdon was the team's No. 1 catcher.
Sophomore Megan Hodgdon (Cheshire) returns after making 25 of her 31 starts at catcher last year. Pepin likes Hodgdon's arm strength and leadership behind the plate, noting that she gained valuable offseason experience catching for Division I pitchers while playing last summer for the Stratford Brakettes, the 28-time ASA women's major fastpitch national champions.
Sophomore Sabrina LeMere (North Branford) joins the program this year as a backup left-handed catcher after spending the winter as a starting guard on the Eastern women's basketball team.
Sophomore Sara Pisanelli (Wallingford) returns as the starting shortstop and as the only returning .300 hitter (she hit .320 last year batting leadoff and third), with sophomore Crysta Wolski (West Hartford) heading into the season as the starting third baseman. She was one of five individuals to start a game at that position last year.
Cardello, junior Jolee Iannantuoni (Waterbury) and freshman Christine Guyette (Mansfield) are candidates at first base in place of two graduated players who shared the position last year (Cardello making five starts there). Junior Jackie Lewis (Mystic) and freshman Alexis Tyrrell (Torrington) are battling for the starting second base position, although Pepin views Lewis as an on-field captain who is familiar with all of the defensive plays and has an understanding of where to position her teammates after making a combined 22 starts at second and third base last year. According to Pepin, Tyrrell is also competing for innings at third base and could also see time at shortstop.
Pepin feels that Bolduk – when not pitching -- is very capable at multiple infield positions and will provide the lineup with a dangerous bat.
The outfield returns one fulltime starter in senior Jessica Seymour (Barkhamsted), one part-time starter in junior Calli Duthrie (Griswold) and a freshman in Kat Devolve (Plainfield). With the graduation of Samantha Bardos, Seymour (second to Pisanelli among returnees in batting) will take over in center field, with Duthrie taking over her spot as the starting leftfielder and Devolve opening the season in right. Seymour, the team's only senior, and Duthrie are versatile, with both making starts at all three outfield positions last year.
At right: Returning All-Little East outfielder Jessica Seymour will move to center from left field this season.
Pepin sees more confidence from Duthrie heading into this season, and notes that Seymour – who missed her entire freshman season with an injury -- has earned her stripes over the last couple of seasons. Devolve and Moroney could split time in right field and at designated player, as Pepin likes both of their bats.
After competing in Arizona in 2017, the Warriors return to Florida this season to play ten games in Kissimmee during spring break, facing first-time opponents Marietta College and Webster University this Sunday.
Upon returning home, Eastern visits Springfield College March 21 and Trinity College March 27 before opening the home and conference season March 31 against Little East Conference foe University of Southern Maine at the Eastern Softball Stadium.
Once the Warriors play that first home set, they only leave the friendly confines four more times during the season. Perhaps all of the home-field advantage will help Eastern's young team perform to a higher level and a return to glory faster than expected.
In the conference, Pepin sees a close race again, with parity ruling as the teams are so evenly matched. UMass Boston, Western Connecticut, and Southern Maine are likely to battle with the Warriors for the higher seeds heading into the LEC post-season tournament in early May.
In the LEC pre-season coaches' poll, Eastern shares fourth place in the eight-team conference with UMass Dartmouth and Southern Maine.
As with any team, injuries could play a major factor, but if the young Warriors remain healthy and step up to every challenge, 2018 could be the beginning of another great run at Eastern.