By Richard Dougherty, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Softball season is quickly approaching, and the Nittany Lions are eager to kick off their 2015 campaign. In two short weeks, Penn State will be on the field in sunny Boca Raton, Fla. for the annual Florida Atlantic University "Kick-Off" Tournament.
Head coach Amanda Lehotak and the Lions get a fresh start this year, and they plan to make the most of it. There's plenty to be excited about, including a young, tough-minded infield group.
"They're extremely athletic," said Lehotak. "They do exactly what they need to do, which is why I trust starting them. They make all the routine plays. If we can make all the routine plays and make a great play every now and then, we're going to be tough to beat."
The group boasts three freshmen, three sophomores, and two juniors, giving Lehotak plenty of options to mix and match with. Last year, seven infielders saw time on the field, so it wouldn't be surprising to see all eight players out there at some point in 2015.
Junior Reina Furuya, who started in every game last year, knows the importance of depth and versatility in the infield.
"Everyone brings their own skills to the table," Furuya said. "We have plenty of weapons and we're much more well-rounded this year. We always push each other in practice because we know all of us are capable of starting."
Coach Lehotak has been impressed with Furuya thus far. With a lack of experience scattered throughout the infield, it was imperative that someone took over as the leader, and that's exactly what Furuya has done in the offseason.
"I trust her," said Lehotak. "She gets it. She studies the game and she's always watching film. She enjoys that role and has really embraced it."
On the opposite end, the three freshmen are showing no signs of fear or uncertainty. Most notably, Gianna Arrizurieta has been turning some heads in the preseason.
"Her work ethic, her knowledge of the game and her offensive ability has far exceeded our expectations," Lehotak said. "Offensively, we did not expect her to have the pop that she has, or the mental toughness. That's a kid that can strike out on 3 straight pitches and on the next at-bat hit a rocket up the middle."
Another player to watch this year is sophomore Kristina Brackpool. As a freshman, Brackpool started 25 games and hit two home runs while compiling an impressive .987 fielders percentage.
"I'm looking for her [Brackpool] to have a big year," said Lehotak. "Last year, she was our own worst enemy mentally. This year she really has matured and worked her butt off, and she is far better mentally and physically than she was a year ago."
"My main objective is to play solid defense," said Brackpool. "We've been stressing it a ton this offseason. If we don't allow runs, we only need to score one and we should win every game."
Defense has been a major point of emphasis going into the year. The Lions were fifth in the Big Ten last year with 31 infield errors, but they are looking to improve.
"We want to be top three defensively in the Big Ten," said Lehotak. "I think we have the talent to do it. Even if we're starting 3 freshmen in the infield, we're sticking to that goal. Sixty percent of our practices are strictly based on defense."
The Nittany Lions are going to have to be stout defensively to succeed in the Big Ten, as five teams from the conference received votes in the USA Today/NFCA Division Preseason Poll.
Furuya has been stressing the importance of defense to the younger players herself.
"Defense is a game changer," said Furuya. "We can score 10 runs each game and still lose every single one if we can't defend. We have to play every pitch like it's our last."
Other strong contributors on the field include sophomores Shelby Miller and Sam Shanahan, along with junior Maegan Tupinio. Miller was one of just four Nittany Lions to bat over .300 last year, so expect her to carry the load offensively while Miller leads the way defensively making just five errors in 84 chances in 2014. Freshmen Alyssa VanDerveer and Mollie Sorenson will also look to make an immediate impact in any way they can.
There are unlimited roster possibilities for coach Lehotak, and she will be utilizing as many different lineups as she can. The ability to rotate infielders and sub in fresh legs when needed will be a huge advantage for Penn State this season.
Penn State will start the season Feb. 6-8 at the FAU "Kick-Off' Tournament in Boca Raton, Fla. as the team plays five games in three days vs. opponents Arkansas, FAU, LIU Brooklyn, Georgia Tech and Kansas.