Kristen Clark

Photo Credit: Anthony Mireles | Daily Texan Staff

Few things in sports provide a sense of pride and accomplishment to an athlete the way winning on home turf does. But through the first two days of the Texas Invitational, the Longhorns have struggled to do that.

Texas beat a ranked team in No. 20 Michigan and added a win versus Virginia Tech this weekend. But the Longhorns also lost to No. 21 Ohio State and Wichita State.

Texas finally recorded a win against a top-25 team on the opening day of the tournament, but its second such win failed to come the next day. Texas has a record of 2–2 in the tournament heading into the final day of play, where the team will face Michigan once again.

“Our communication and our chemistry are really big strengths,” sophomore catcher Taylor Ellsworth said. “All of us get along, and we all hang out off the field. We’re never alone — we’re always together. I think just having the chemistry is a strength that brings you together as a team. You have that trust in the person, on and off the field.”

In Saturday’s first game of the doubleheader, Texas had to rely on a rally to defeat the Hokies, trailing by two runs until the fourth inning. Freshman Chloe Romero started for the Longhorns and got rocked for three runs in just a third of an inning. Romero was relieved by junior Paige von Sprecken.

Von Sprecken continued her strong start to the season, bringing her record to 3–1, after recording two shutouts earlier this season. Texas defeated Virginia Tech, 3-2.

“Paige von Sprecken is doing a lot of things for us this year,” Texas head coach Connie Clark said. “She’s one of our top hitters and needs to be in the lineup whether she’s in the circle or not. Working at first, working in the outfield — she’s doing really well.”

In the second game, senior Kristen Clark started for Texas and pitched four strong innings of two earned-run ball. Junior Brooke Bolinger came into the game to collect the last couple of innings. She gave up a grand slam in the top of the seventh to give the Buckeyes an 8-5 lead. The Longhorns weren’t able to recover.

The depth of the Texas pitching staff was on full display in both games — when one pitcher grew tired or was being out-played, another came in. Having so many pitchers pitch in one game can be challenging, but with time, could be a weapon for the team.

“It takes some getting used to, just knowing what pitches each pitcher throws,” senior captain Randel Leahy said. “We’ve been working on that a lot in practice.”

Texas plays No. 20 Michigan at 1:30 p.m. Sunday to close out the Texas Invitational at McCombs Field.

Photo Credit: Daulton Venglar | Daily Texan Staff

Connie Clark has been Texas’ head softball coach for a long time.

Actually, she’s the only head coach the 19-year-old program has ever had. With five Women’s College World Series appearances and three Big 12 Conference Coach of the Year awards under her belt, it’s safe to say the coach knows how to put a team together.

She’s also acutely aware of the importance of the athletes who aren’t in the spotlight. 

“We actually tab anybody that’s not a starter as a difference maker,” Connie said. “Whether it’s because of attitude, the energy they bring or being somebody that you can pencil in to enter a tough situation — they’re difference makers for a reason.”

This season, a few solid difference makers have emerged from Texas’ bullpen.

Sophomore pitcher Lauren Slatten and freshman pitcher Kristen Clark have pitched in 19 games combined this season, with just five starts between them. Slatten currently boasts a 2–0 record while Kristen maintains a 3–1 record, and they both have a save credited to them.

Kristen has found success in the middle of troubling situations. In the conference series against Kansas in late March, she pitched a total of 5.2 innings of relief and gave up just one run. She collected five strikeouts, including one against the Jayhawks’ best hitter, junior Chaley Brickey, to escape a bases-loaded situation and secure the Texas victory. In Texas’ next game against Houston, Kristen pitched four innings of relief and worked around scoring situations again.

“I’m starting to call her ‘Ice Water,’” Connie said of her hurler. “She’s seen some challenging moments, and you can’t teach those, so it’s great seeing her go through them and do so well.”

Texas will look to get its bench some playing time as the Longhorns (28–12, 3–3 Big 12) face Iowa State this weekend in a three-game conference series. Although the Cyclones (20–17, 1–5) currently sit at the bottom of the Big 12 standings, they have some power hitters in their lineup.

Junior Brittany Gomez is the top batter for the Cyclones with a .448 batting average and 60 hits. Junior Aly Cappaert enters the series with a .350 batting average and the current hot hand for Iowa State.

With only conference matchups remaining on the regular season schedule, Texas’ roster depth will be especially important.

“It makes a big difference,” Connie said. “It’s nice to be able to turn to a deep bench and get some production.”

Senior pitcher Gabby Smith has been a steady arm for Texas this season with a 7–1 record and a 2.13 in 52.2 innings of work.
Photo Credit: Mariana Gonzalez | Daily Texan Staff

Texas and Oklahoma, the only Big 12 teams who haven’t lost a conference game this season, are both riding nine-game winning streaks — but that’s about to change.

This weekend at Red and Charline McCombs Field, the Longhorns (27–9, 3–0 Big 12) and Sooners (33–5, 6–0 Big 12) will challenge each other in a pivotal three-game series. The No. 18 Sooners and No. 20 Longhorns sit one and two in conference standings, respectively.

Oklahoma enters the series with the best offense in the conference, boasting a .385 team batting average to Texas’ fourth-best .318. The long ball is a major part of their game — the Sooners claim the Big 12 home run leaders in senior pitcher and shortstop Shelby Pendley (19) and senior first baseman Lauren Chamberlain (16). Pendley and Chamberlain are two of 26 finalists for the 2015 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year award.

Senior pitcher Gabby Smith said Texas’ pitching staff, which has the third-best team ERA (3.10) in the conference, won’t let Oklahoma’s power hitters get in their heads.

“I’m just trying to not overthink it too much,” Smith said. “A batter is a batter, and I’m going to try and not give the hitters too much credit. They’re a great hitting team, and they’re going to make adjustments, so I’m going to have to make adjustments as well.”

Offensively, the Longhorns want to rely on the consistency they get from hitters such as sophomore shortstop Devon Tunning, who currently owns a 21-game on-base streak and has a .571 on-base percentage.

“She’s a tremendous offensive weapon,” head coach Kristen Clark said. “She really has taken ownership of the leadoff spot. She’s the hot hand and has a great eye and is really coming into her own.”

Although she said she feels good about her recent offensive success, Tunning said she’s also excited about Texas’ defense.

Early in the season the Longhorns struggled with defensive miscues while moving the infield around. The team committed 28 errors through the first 18 games. In the past 18 contests, since finalizing the defense, Texas has committed just nine errors.

“At the beginning of the year, we were working through things; there was no set lineup, so we were trying to figure out who’s going to be where,” Tunning said. “Right now, I think we know who’s going to be out there, and the communication is solid. We have good chemistry.”

That chemistry allows Texas enter this weekend with confidence despite struggling against Oklahoma in recent years. Since 2009, the Sooners have won nine of 15 meetings in the Red River Rivalry.

“We have a big weekend coming up, and we’re going into it confident,” Tunning said. “Our whole motto this year has been a championship mindset, and we’re taking that into this series.”

First pitch of the series will be at 4:30 p.m. on Friday. All games of the series will be aired by Longhorn Network.