Blaire Luna

Texas will be forced to adapt to playing without former superstar pitcher Blaire Luna this year. Luna graduated last spring. 

Photo Credit: Shweta Gulati | Daily Texan Staff

The Longhorns had the pleasure of watching pitcher Blaire Luna dominate opponents the last four years. In her time in Austin, Luna had 1,428 strikeouts and eight no-hitters, including one in last year’s postseason that sent Texas to the Women’s College World Series.

But, with Luna now an alumna, the Longhorns are going to have to fill her void at the most important position in the field.

“Fast pitch softball revolves around the pitcher,” head coach Connie Clark said. “It’s an important part of the success of the team. We have to pass that baton on.”

Texas has four pitchers on the roster this year, and even though Clark said they will give each pitcher a look in their non-conference schedule, the favorite to take on the ace role is junior Gabby Smith.

Smith has pitched in 21 games with 40 strikeouts in her collegiate career, but she worked this offseason knowing that she would have to help fill the hole left by Luna.

“This summer I wanted to get better and be the pitcher we needed,” Smith said. “I played in a league and really got some more pitching time that I didn’t really have my first two years. So that got my confidence up.”

During the fall season, Smith was able to translate her summer work into results on the field, striking out 20 batters while allowing only one hit and no runs in 13 innings pitched.

Smith said she has learned a lot from Luna during the past couple of years.

“She still lives here in Austin, and we’ll still pitch together, and she’ll give me a few pointers on spins and stuff like that,” Smith said. “She’s always been there to help me.”

The Longhorns also have sophomore Holly Kern who is the only other returning pitcher. Last year, Kern had a 7-3 record and a 2.74 earned run average in 15 games.

In addition to Smith and Kern, two freshmen round out the pitching rotation for Texas. Lauren Slattern struck out nine and gave up only four hits and no runs in 12.1 innings and Tiara Davis allowed one earned run on 10 hits in 10.1 innings this fall.

Clark said Smith has set herself apart from the rest of the group, but she’s giving the whole staff some playing time early on to see who emerges as the ace.

“We’ll be using all four of them to give them experience in a game,” Clark said. “From there, we’ll make a decision.”

While the pitching staff may be short on experience, the Longhorns do have an advantage at catcher. Senior Mandy Ogle handled the pitch-calling duties last year and — as the leader on the Texas defense — hopes she’ll be able to help the young staff develop.

“Having Ogle be able to work with the pitching staff is a big plus for us,” Clark said.

Smith admitted that it will be difficult for them to fill Luna’s hole on the field, but it’s something they’re looking forward to.

“Taking over Blaire’s spot, that’s something we’re going to embrace,” Smith said.

Texas faces familiar foe in Arizona State in WCWS opener

The Women’s College World Series may be an unfamiliar place for Texas, but Arizona State is not an unfamiliar opponent.

The Longhorns played the Sun Devils once this year, falling to ASU, 3-0, in their first game at the Judi Garman Classic in Fullerton, Calif. back in March. Junior Dallas Escobedo, who led Arizona State to a national title as a freshman in 2011, tossed a three-hit shutout in that game.

“Dallas Escobedo, she has a great rise ball. She’s a great pitcher,” senior Taylor Hoagland said. “She’s been there before. That’s one thing they have on us is experience but that doesn’t matter. It could be anybody’s game at any point in time so we’re really excited.”

Hoagland is one of four seniors – the others being pitcher Blaire Luna, outfielder Torie Schmidt and utility player Kim Bruins – on this Longhorns squad, which is making its first trip to Oklahoma City since 2006. Texas was bounced out of the Regionals in 2010 and 2011 before falling to Oregon in the Super Regionals last year in heartbreaking fashion.

But the Longhorns, the No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, are back at the WCWS for the first time since Cat Osterman toed the rubber for them. They will face the Sun Devils, the No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament, at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City on Thursday at 6 p.m. The winner will play either top-seeded Oklahoma or No. 8 seed Michigan on Friday night.

Just because they haven’t been there in a while doesn’t mean they didn’t expect to be there this season.

“Every single year,” head coach Connie Clark said. “I don’t really think it’s ego. I think you should have that expectation every year as a coach. Anything less is a disappointment for us. When we hit the recruiting trail, we sell that and we talk about it. It’s not lip service. We need to get the type of student-athletes that can take us there every year.”

Luna has been very sharp this postseason, going 4-0 with a 0.97 ERA in 29 innings. She capped off Texas’ Super Regional series win over Florida State by throwing her eighth career no-hitter – the first during the postseason – while striking out 13 and walking only one. Luna goes into the WCWS as arguably the hottest pitcher in the eight-team field.

“It’s definitely our time,” Luna said. “We’ve played some of those teams and we’ve kept up with them. We took one from Oklahoma, we beat Washington and the Arizona State game was a close one. I definitely think we have all the key factors.”

Luna was one of three Texas players who were named AFCA All-Americans this week. Luna and Hoagland were named first-team All-Americans while shortstop Taylor Thom, who hit a two-run home run in Sunday’s 4-0 win over the Seminoles, was named a third-team All-American.

“We’re peaking right now,” Thom said. “The World Series is a totally different atmosphere. It’s just going to be an amazing feeling.”

Texas is making its fifth trip to the WCWS. Its last WCWS win was a 2-0 victory in its 2006 opener at Oklahoma City – against Arizona State. 

Taylor Hoagland is congratulated by head coach Connie Clark during the Longhorns’ win against Houston.

Photo Credit: Shweta Gulati | Daily Texan Staff

When junior catcher Mandy Ogle threw out her tenth base-stealer this season against Oklahoma last weekend, she was on a roll. No. 7 Texas had topped its first No. 1 team since 2006, and as the seventh inning came around, it looked to steal the series. Taylor Hoagland and Brejae Washington strikeouts left Texas runs away from the goal. But Ogle wasn’t going to focus on the past.

“Losing this hits us all pretty hard,” Ogle said. “But I think it’s going to light a fire underneath us and we’re going to come out next weekend and work hard.”

The Longhorns (42-6, 12-2) did just that in a three-game sweep against Texas Tech (29-24, 3-12) this weekend. Ogle’s fire propelled her to go 4-for-9 with a team-high five RBIs against the Red Raiders. She also caught two more stealing this weekend, totaling four tags in the last five contests.

Taylor Thom and Hoagland powered the offense Friday, accounting for five runs, five stolen bases and four hits. In the circle, ace pitcher Blaire Luna allowed only one hit in the first five innings. Paired with a four-run fifth inning, Texas led 8-0 when Holly Kern took the mound for Luna. But Kern nearly allowed the Red Raiders to tie the game, allowing six runs on five hits in the bottom of the sixth inning. Luna reentered in the seventh to retire the Red Raiders in order.

Saturday went more smoothly, as Kim Bruins allowed just one run off four hits for a complete game. A three-tiered Texas Tech staff couldn’t keep the Longhorns at bay — most notably Hoagland homers in the first and third innings. En route to a 4-1 victory, Washington scored as well on a two-for-three day to keep the top of the lineup strong.

Closing out Sunday, the Longhorns combined their weekend efforts for many repeats. Luna again struck out 10 as the Longhorns capitalized in the fifth for another 4-1 victory. But beyond the numbers, Texas reasserted itself as a Big 12 powerhouse after a tough weekend. Hoagland extended her on-base streak to 56-straight games with a .639 on-base percentage this season, while Luna joined Cat Osterman as the only Texas pitchers to fan 300 a season in three seasons.

Catcher Mandy Ogle has seen first hand what Blaire Luna can do on the mound. Luna holds a 22-3 record this season and opponents hold just a .121 batting average against her. 

Photo Credit: Shweta Gulati | Daily Texan Staff

Blaire Luna is dominating. Hitters are hitting just .121 off her. Teams are scoring just 1.25 runs a game off her. And most impressively, she is striking out a nation-leading 12.5 a game.

But she has a weakness — the long ball.

When Shelby Pendley went deep twice against Luna last Sunday, she hit the ninth and 10th home runs Luna has allowed on the year. But they were also the 14th and 15th runs off home runs that Luna allowed.

While just allowing 37 runs all year, the long ball makes up 40.5% of them — higher than the national average.

Despite her tendency to give up a blast here and there, she still is one of the top pitchers in the nation, with a 22-3 record.

But that third loss stings the most as it was against Oklahoma with a chance to win it in the seventh.

“I don’t think we should forget about this series,” catcher Mandy Ogle said after the Oklahoma finale. “Losing this hits us all pretty hard, but I think it’s going to light a fire underneath us and we’re going to come out next weekend and work hard.”

And that’s the sort of motivation Texas needs after pretty much coasting through the first part of its schedule.

This weekend, the No. 7 Longhorns (39-6, 9-2 Big 12) will travel up to Lubbock for a three-game set with Texas Tech (29-21, 3-9 Big 12).

Texas, one game behind Oklahoma in the Big 12 standings, most likely needs to win out, meaning three-game sweeps against both Texas Tech and Oklahoma State and then winning the finale against Baylor, if it wants a shot at its first Big 12 championship since 2010.

And this weekend’s matchup against Texas Tech shouldn’t be much of a challenge.

The Red Raiders sit at the bottom of the Big 12 standings, and most of that can be attributed to the team’s .228 batting average in conference.

That average, coupled by a 5.40 team ERA, is not a recipe for success.

Put those offensive numbers against Blaire Luna, who should take the circle at least twice this weekend, and the Red Raiders may have a difficult time reaching first base.

As for Texas, Taylor Thom is a player to watch this weekend.  

Thom, the hottest-hitting Longhorn, finished the Oklahoma series with a .500 batting average, including a homer off the scoreboard in the finale. The two RBIs she collected in the finale put her season total at 50, good for second in program history and just seven off Lexy Bennett’s mark.

Taylor Hoagland hits a grand slam against Kansas in game one of Texas’ series sweep over the weekend. 

Photo Credit: Sam Ortega | Daily Texan Staff

No. 8 Texas swept Kansas (21-10) with two wins on Friday to improve to 5-0 in Big 12 play and 32-4 overall.

Despite coming into the series owning the nation’s best batting average (.384), Kansas could only muster nine hits in 75 at-bats against the 12th best pitching team in the nation. Against Player of the Year candidate Blaire Luna, the potent Jayhawks offense could only tally four hits in 13 innings.

For the first time this year, the Big 12 got a look at just how good the Jayhawks are. Even though they are vastly improved from their second-to-last place finish in last year’s Big 12 standings, they still may not be ready to compete for a conference title.

In the first game Friday, Gabby Smith got the start and struggled early, allowing three runs in two innings, helping Kansas get out to a 3-0 lead. But freshman Holly Kern (6-3) then came in and silenced the Jayhawk bats, allowing just one hit and one run in her third straight victory.

After cutting the deficit to one with two runs in the fourth, the Longhorns exploded for 14 runs in the top of the sixth, the highest-scoring inning in the program’s history. Taylor Hoagland, after walking in her previous eight plate appearances, delivered a tie-breaking grand slam. And by the time the inning was over, Texas was looking at a 16-4 lead.

The 16 runs were the most ever for the Longhorns in a conference game.

In the second game, Luna (17-1) went the distance. She allowed two hits and two earned runs en route to a 5-4 win. Marlee Gabaldon recorded the game-winning RBI with a double in the fourth.

The Longhorns will return to action Tuesday for a non-conference double header against McNeese State.

Texas sweeps Kansas to stay perfect in conference

No. 8 Texas swept Kansas (21-10) with two wins on Saturday to improve to 5-0 in conference and 32-4 overall.

Despite coming in to the series owning a nation’s best .384 average, Kansas could only muster 9 hits in 75 at-bats (.120 average) against the 12th best pitching team in the nation.

For the first time this year, the Big 12 got a look at really just how good the Jayhawks are. Even though they are vastly improved from their second-to-last place finish in last year’s Big 12 standings, they are still not ready to compete for a top spot in the Big 12.

When facing quality pitching, which they did for the first time this weekend, Kansas is not the top-hitting team in the nation as the numbers say. Player of the year candidate Blaire Luna held the “potent” Jayhawks offense to four hits in 13 innings.

However, while the rest of the team may not be as good as the numbers say, Maggie Hull is. She hit. 444 accounting for nearly half of the team’s hits.

In the first game Friday, Gabby Smith got the start in the circle and struggled early, allowing three runs in two innings, helping Kansas get out to a 3-0 lead. But freshman Holly Kern (6-3) then came in and silenced the Jayhawk bats, allowing just one hit and one run.

After cutting deficit to one with two runs in the fourth, the Longhorns exploded for 14 runs, the highest-scoring inning in the program’s history, in the sixth. The two hottest Texas hitters went off. Taylor Hoagland, after walking in her previous eight plate appearances, delivered a tie-breaking grand slam. And two hitters later, Taylor Thom delivered a two-run shot.

Those were both players’ tenth homer of the year. By the time the game was over, Texas was looking at a 16-4 lead.

The 16 runs were the most ever for the Longhorns in a conference game.

In the second game, Luna (17-1) went the distance. She allowed two hits and two earned runs in the first and nothing the rest of the game besides two unearned runs in pace to a 5-4 win. Hoagland recorded 4 more walks, while Marlee Gabaldon recorded the game-winning RBI. Thom and Torie Schmidt both recorded three more hits in the contest.

The Longhorns will return to action 4:30 Tuesday for a non-conference double header against McNeese State.
 

Catcher Taylor King scores a run for the 16-1 Longhorns. King returns to her home state of Florida, where she played her high school ball, for this weekend’s tournament. 

Photo Credit: Zachary Strain | Daily Texan Staff

After escaping the eighth inning with a victory against No. 21 Tulsa last weekend, the Longhorns head to Kissimmee, Fla., for the Citrus Classic. 

Now ranked No. 5 in the country, the team faces No. 15 Louisville, Hofstra, No. 13 Louisiana-Lafayette and Syracuse this weekend. Freshman Taylor King is excited to compete near her hometown.

“When I was around 9 years old I saw Texas play, and all I wanted to do was play here,” King said. “Hopefully, my energy in being there and our energy in being there will carry over to the field.”

Texas trumped Louisville 14-4 and Hofstra 5-0 in the last matches against each of these teams in 2011. Pitcher Blaire Luna struck out 10 batters against Hofstra, but the Pride have yet to see her two years of improvement. Against Louisville and Louisiana-Lafayette, Texas looks to improve its record against ranked opponents. The team is 161-168-1 all-time, but 36-26 since Luna and her class arrived on campus.

“These are the fun games and these are the games that you play for,” Luna said of facing more competitive opponents.

During the 16-1 campaign for Texas thus far, shortstop Taylor Thom has posed a strong offensive threat. The first Longhorn to win consecutive Big 12 Player of the Week titles, Thom earned her second after last weekend’s performance at the Texas Invitational. Her six runs and eight RBIs included a three-double game to tie an NCAA single-game record. On Feb. 16 in Houston, her single-game two grand slams tied another.

“We continue to work hard in the cages,” Thom said. “The ball looks a little like a beach ball. I’m getting good swings on good pitches and going up to the plate with a plan.”

Thom looks to continue the dominance as the Longhorns open the tournament Friday at 10 a.m.

“We’re a mentally tough team,” Thom said. “We have the confidence in ourselves and I think we can go really far.” 

Handing out Oscars for the best performances in Texas sports this past year

Best Actor - Alex Okafor

Third baseman Erich Weiss and golfer Dylan Frittelli were considered for this, but Okafor’s Alamo Bowl performance put him over the top. In 2012 the Pflugerville product made 68 tackles, a whopping 18 of them for a loss, including 12.5 sacks and 20 quarterback hurries, both team-highs by far. The 4.5-sack effort he turned in during Texas’s triumph over Oregon State last December was a fitting end to his career and may have earned him a spot in the first round of April’s NFL Draft.

Best Actress - Blaire Luna

Luna, a local product from Austin's Bowie High School, went 22-6 with a 2.31 ERA last year, when she nearly led Texas to its first Women’s College World Series berth since Cat Osterman was on the 40 Acres. She’s off to a scorching start this season, going 7-0 with a 0.50 ERA in her first seven outings as the Longhorns (16-1) are off to their best 17-game start in school history. She almost tied her career-high by striking out 16 Tulsa hitters in Sunday’s win without issuing a single walk. Luna and the Longhorns could very well be Oklahoma City-bound in a few months.

Best Actor in Supporting Role - Hoby Milner 

Milner started out last season in the Longhorns’ starting rotation but, by the end of the year, he was the team’s set-up man. What seemed like a demotion proved to be mutually beneficial for both Milner and his squad. Texas had a reliable option behind closer Corey Knebel and Milner, who admitted to being more comfortable coming out of the bullpen, ended up being drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in the seventh round of last year’s MLB Draft. 

Best Actress in Supporting Role - Hannah Allison

Allison was an essential piece to the Longhorns’ championship puzzle last season. She averaged more than 10 assists per set this past year and had 254 assists in six NCAA Tournament games, including a mind-boggling 53 in the Final Four five-set triumph against Michigan. As great as Bailey Webster, Haley Eckerman and Khat Bell were, Texas would not have won a national title without Allison.

Best Picture - Men’s golf team winning a national title

Texas captured two national championships over the last 12 months, one in volleyball and one in men’s golf. But the Longhorn volleyball team swept Oregon in its national title game, leaving little doubt who the best squad in the country was. The Texas men’s golf squad, on the other hand, provided much more drama on its way to winning a championship. Senior Dylan Frittelli sank a 30-foot, title-clinching birdie putt on the final hole of the Longhorns’s national championship clash with Alabama, sending his teammates in a frenzy and giving Texas its third national title in men’s golf.

Best Director - Jerritt Elliott

After several uncharacteristic losses in non-conference play, Elliott, the head volleyball coach, talked about how he has been toying with his lineup, still unsure of what group of players will work. Texas began the year by losing three of its first nine matches but reeled off 17 straight wins, including a school-record 15 in a row to begin Big-12 play, before falling to Iowa State in five sets in its regular season finale – a loss some players said would actually serve the Longhorns well in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. Sure enough, they blazed their way through the tournament, losing just one set in their first four NCAA Tournament matches, all of which were in Austin, before battling back in a five-set win over Michigan and a sweep of Oregon in the title match. Eddie Reese, John Fields and Augie Garrido are really good at what they do, but Elliott may very well be the best coach on campus.

Senior pitcher Blaire Luna    pitched 14 innings and 28 strikeouts to kick off Texas’s 2013 season.  Luna looks to trump Stephen F. Austin in Wednesday’s matchup after losing to the rival last year.  

Photo Credit: Jonathan Garza | Daily Texan Staff

Strong season starts aren’t anything new for Texas. The 2011 and 2012 Longhorn opens both recorded 10-0, with last weekend’s 5-0 start well on its way to follow suit. The Stephen F. Austin rivalry also features an 11-3 Texas lead — but the lead is marred by the teams’ most recent matchup, when SFA trumped Texas 1-0 in a bases loaded first-inning walk April 13, 2011. The then-No. 3 Longhorns forfeited an 18-game winning streak to the East Texas force.

“As a team, it is disappointing anytime you lose,” ace pitcher Blaire Luna said after the game. “We are all aware that we need to start stronger but every team is going to play up when they play against us. We have to give credit to SFA — they played well collectively, their pitcher did a great job and it worked out in their favor.”

The Longhorns look to avenge the loss at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Red & Charline McCombs Field, returning from a three-day hiatus after capturing the Texas Classic tournament title. The strong weekend moved them up to No. 6 on both the espn.com/USA Softball and the USA Today/NFCA Coaches polls. Defensively, Texas boasts a .956 season fielding percentage to complement three shutouts and only 16 total hits allowed. The Longhorn offense has outscored opponents 32-5 with a .331 batting average, .537 slugging percentage and 13 steals. They have scored 16 two-out runs with three or more runs in a single inning each game.

“When you get five or six runs in an inning, that’s just momentum you are gaining and taking away from the other team,” shortstop Taylor Thom said.

Luna joins Kim Bruins, Gabby Smith and Holly Kern for strong options in the circle. Newcomers Stephanie Ceo and Erin Shireman made big starts, Ceo with a .667 batting average and Shireman a two-run home run in her first collegiate at bat. Battling fatigue, performance began to slip Sunday but the Longhorns finished strong.

“Learning how to grind it out is important,” head coach Connie Clark said post-tournament. “[The championship] looked like the fourth day of a tournament. That’s about building up stamina and it’s something we have to work through. What I told them is to push each other. That’s something they need to do and that will be important for us moving into the season.”

Published on February 13, 2013 as "SFA offers rivalry, challenge". 

Senior pitcher Blaire Luna fires a pitch during Texas’ 6-0 season-opening victory over Texas A&M Corpus-Christi on Thursday night. She struck out 14 hitters in what was her fifth career no-hitter, with the only Islanders reaching base via a pair of walks and an error.

Photo Credit: Shelby Tauber | Daily Texan Staff

With right fielder Jamise Jackson up to bat at the top of the seventh, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi hoped to redeem itself. Three balls, two strikes, two outs — all Jackson wanted to do was get on base and help her team curb a six-run deficit.

Texas pitcher Blaire Luna had other ideas, instead earning her 14th strikeout of the game to clinch a 6-0 season-opening win for No. 7 Texas. The no-hitter marked Luna’s first since March 17, 2011, and her two walks were all that kept her from a perfect game.

“I really tried to stay pitch-to-pitch and not get consumed with the number of strikeouts,” Luna said. “Knowing I had a no-hitter going, I tried to zero in. My confidence is a lot better this year.”

Junior second baseman Karina Scott opened the stout offensive effort in the first inning with a two-out, two-strike RBI single to right field. The hit allowed junior Brejae Washington to score from second base after stealing it beforehand. The solid start ushered in a strong second inning as Luna quickly struck out three consecutive batters.

Third baseman Taylor Hoagland stepped up to the plate after two outs, two walks and a failure to convert left Mandy Ogle and Gabby Smith on base before her. Hoagland preceded to crush the ball out of the diamond for a three-run homer.

“I learned to treat every ball like my last, because in retrospect, it is,” Hoagland said of her performance. “All week it was hard to focus because I was so excited for tonight, and to come out here and show out like we did was awesome.”

Hoagland was walked in all of her remaining at-bats, as the Islanders no longer looked to pitch her the ball. Hoagland wasn’t fazed. She stole two bases, as did Washington, who brought her school record career total to 67. Hoagland stole her 59th and 60th bases, good for the fourth-most steals in school history.

“I’m just going to steal second and either way, I’ll help my team get into our position,” she said.

Capping off the offensive excitement, freshman Erin Shireman drove in Lindsey Stephens on a home run to the camera stand in her first collegiate at-bat.

“Honestly this is one of the best nights of my life so far,” Shireman said of her debut. “ I was going into bat just trying to stay calm and not think too much but as soon as I hit that ball, I knew it was gone. It felt amazing.”

The Longhorns, now 1-0, introduced all six freshmen into play as they continued their undefeated season opener streak. Texas is 108-9 in season openers and tossed its 11th shutout against the Islanders, who the Longhorns are 23-3 against all-time. 

The Longhorns return to the field against North Texas on Friday at 6 p.m. and Memphis on Saturday at 1 p.m.

Published on February 8, 2013 as "Luna's fifth no-hitter fuels Horns".