New-look Longhorns are deeper, faster

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For all of last season’s talent, leadership and power hitting, Texas lost in the regional round of the 2010 NCAA tournament.

The Longhorns begin the 2011 campaign tonight and are hoping a deeper roster and different offensive philosophy will propel them further into the postseason.

Instead of relying on the big bats of departed players, the team will play more strategic offense, utilizing its high-percentage slugging and base speed to manufacture runs.

“The power is back, but I think we have better speed this year than we’ve ever had,” Texas head coach Connie Clark said. “There aren’t a whole bunch of left-handed slappers in the line up, but we have several that run exceptionally well. We’ll build on that.”

Equally important is the added depth from five incoming and highly regarded freshmen.

“Speed, speed, speed and depth,” said sophomore outfielder Taylor Hoagland when asked how she would sum up this year’s squad. “We have a lot of players in a lot of positions.”

Rachel Fox, a freshman from Sugar Land, joins sophomores Blaire Luna and Kim Bruins in the pitching rotation this season. Over the summer, Fox and her club team Impact Gold finished fourth at the 2010 Amateur Softball Association 18-Under Gold National Championship. She brings additional arm power to the pitching circle. Last season, the Longhorns had a strong starter in Luna but lacked an adequate reserve to back her up.

“It’s finally nice to have some depth behind Blaire,” said junior first baseman Lexy Bennett. “Rachel Fox is doing great. She’s a fabulous pitcher, and especially as a freshman, she has so much more to gain through her four years here. With Blaire having one year behind her, it’s going to be amazing.”

Karina Scott from California and Taylor Thom from Cedar Park join the Texas infield. Brejae Washington, also from California, joins the outfield along with Mandy Ogle from San Antonio. The freshmen add an extra element of speed to complement Hoagland’s from last season.

“We have a lot of speed compared to what we had last year,” Bennett said. “We’re going to be able to produce more runs through stolen bases that we didn’t have last year.”

Ogle can also help out behind the plate as catcher, which is good news for returning senior starter Amy Hooks, one of only two returning players with catching experience. With multiple people at each position, both new and returning, the team identity is changing.

“I think it’s a different team than last year,” Hoagland said. “It’s definitely a lot younger team. We have a lot more personality.”

Clark believes that the pain experienced by the returners greatly affects the identity of the team. She believes that passing along the disappointment of last season’s early exit is essential and a good source of motivation.

“We felt like we absolutely fell short,” Clark said, “[Our] expectations are extremely high. We’re talking about Women’s College World Series on a daily basis, and that is our expectation.”

The first test of the team’s depth comes this weekend, when the team plays five games in four days versus Tulsa, Louisville and Northern Illinois in the Texas Classic. It’s a chance for fans to finally see the new players that the coaches have been commenting on throughout the fall. It will also be an opportunity to see how this depth and the pain of last year affect the Longhorns.

“Now you have a big picture in mind, and it’s [the] Women’s College World Series,” Clark said. “I think that helps motivate you, knowing there is that peace at the end of the tunnel.”