The calendar just flipped from January to February, transitioning from one of the coldest months of the year to another.
But the sun beat down on Red and Charline McCombs Field on Wednesday afternoon as temperatures threatened to exceed 80 degrees.
Suited in black and orange, ponytails above visors, the Texas softball team took the field. Sweat beads dripped down their faces as they slid through the dirt during their agility warm-up, running from cone to cone.
“Grittiness is kind of our word this year,” junior catcher Randel Leahy said. “It’s a lot different than what I’ve seen in our past.”
The roster hasn’t changed much, but the game plan has. Texas returns 13 letterwinners, including five positional starters and three pitchers from last year. But the pitching staff has added more depth to the mix.
Right-handed redshirt sophomore Erica Wright will return to the mound after a season-long right rib injury. Sophomore lefty Brooke Bolinger will take the mound for the first time as a Longhorn after transferring from Nevada.
“I’m so excited we have five pitchers I can’t even begin to tell you,” head coach Connie Clark said. “After coming off of last season, you can’t be thin … so if we’ve got a little bit of a crowded house that’s okay.”
Variety comes with numbers in the bullpen, but also on the individual level. Left-handed senior Tiarra Davis has enhanced her identity as a pitcher, adding two more pitches to her five for more variety.
“She has added a backdoor curve and her offspeed pitch is significant right now, so she’ll have a little bit of a different look,” Clark said. “She’s got to be able to put people away and not get consumed with a strikeout but just win the next pitch and attack earlier.”
The Longhorns also welcomed hitting coach Tripp MacKay to change their offensive strategy. MacKay hails from Oklahoma, last year’s National Champion, and has already established a championship mindset in the Texas players.
“He comes with his own terminology and I think it’s about how our own team takes it on and how our own team puts swagger on it,” senior first baseman Kelli Hanzel said. “We look, as an offense, to score more than five runs a game. We have a couple slappers in the lineup, but we’re a power-hitting team.”
The depth in the bullpen and new offensive strategy have the Longhorns looking at nothing short of a championship this year. They will jump-start their season with three talent-heavy pre-season tournaments, including this weekend’s matchup against No. 16 Minnesota.
Before facing the Golden Gophers at 7 p.m. in the second leg of a double header, Texas takes on Colorado State at 4:30 p.m. on Friday.
“I’ve been in clubhouses where you have it or where you don’t have it and it’s the thing,” Clark said. “We’ve got to have it and I think this group, this 2017, may be something special in that regard.”