Softball: Panthers look to improve after returning all but two from last year

By Lauren Kirschman

The Pitt softball team doesn’t open at home until March 24, when the Panthers will face… The Pitt softball team doesn’t open at home until March 24, when the Panthers will face Youngstown State, but that isn’t keeping the team from staying busy early in the spring season.

The Panthers will play in five tournaments this spring, starting on Feb. 19, at the Florida Atlantic Invitational in Boca Raton.

The Panthers return all but two players from the team that finished 25-24 overall and 9-15 in conference play last season. Among the departed seniors is catcher Sam Card.

“She pretty much started every game at catcher,” head coach Holly Aprile said. “It’s hard to replace her leadership and offensive production. Losing a seasoned, full-time starter and significant offensive contributor like Sam Card is never easy.”

Card batted .277 for Pitt last season, while leading the team with 28 RBIs.

Still, Aprile said that sophomore Keli Gaynor and freshman Holly Stevens are up to the challenge of filling Card’s void.

“Holly will probably be seeing time behind the plate as a starter,” Aprile said. “She’ll split time, but she’s the one freshman who will really be playing.”

Aprile said both Stevens and Gaynor will catch, and she expects Stevens to produce solid offensive numbers for the team.

Stevens, a California native, was the 2009 Los Angeles city player of the year. Gaynor was a three-time all-conference and all-group honoree at Eastern Regional High School in New Jersey.

The other senior missing from this season’s Panthers squad is pitcher Kaitlyn Schuster.

“She didn’t see a ton of innings, but she was one of our captains last year,” Aprile said. “Her presence will be missed.”

The Panthers return the rest of their pitching rotation from last season: Alyssa O’Connell, Cory Berliner and Kayla Zinger.

“We will continue to be strong on the mound,” Aprile said. “Alyssa worked very hard in the offseason and I expect her to really come into her own this year. She is a very hard worker and a team leader.”

O’Connell threw 89 innings last season, with an ERA of 2.59. Berliner led the pitching staff with 134.1 innings and a 1.72 ERA.

Center fielder Reba Tutt is Pitt’s top returning starter on the offensive side, and according to Aprile she has also stepped up her game defensively. Tutt batted .279 to lead the Panthers last season, while driving in 21 runs.

“She has always been a serious competitor, but she has been noticeably more aggressive in the outfield and her dedication sets a great example to the rest of the team,” Aprile said. “She arrives early and stays late.”

Aprile expects left fielder Ashley Amistade to be a “table setter” at the plate and provide an offensive spark for the Panthers. Aprile said Amistade showed great improvement throughout the year.

Right fielder Yvette Bravo returns to the team after leading Pitt with six home runs last season.

“I expect Yvette to really make her presence felt at the plate this year and to produce strong numbers for us with the long ball and RBI totals,” Aprile said.

Pitt also returns its entire infield from last season, including the strong defensive combination of shortstop Niki Cognigni and second baseman Kristin Cheesebrew — a core that Aprile said is “working well together.”

Cognigni and Cheesebrew boasted fielding percentages of .881 and .966, respectively, last season.

Ciera Damon will play first base for the Panthers, while Megan Livesey and Jess Rhodunda will split time at third base. Damon will spend the majority of time at first base after making the switch from third base last season.

“She’s looked like an old pro in preseason practices,” Aprile said of Damon.

After its first tournament in Florida, Pitt travels to Chapel Hill for the North Carolina Invitational on Feb. 27.

Less than a week later, the Panthers will spend spring break in Kentucky playing in the Morehead State Invitational, followed by the USF Under Armour Invitational in Clearwater, Fla.

Pitt finishes up at the James Madison Invitational in Harrisonburg, Va. That tournament is set to end on March 21, giving the team just enough time to return to Pennsylvania for its home opener.

The Panthers started practices on Jan. 11 with a week of individuals. Full team practices picked up the week of Jan 18, around four weeks before the Panthers leave for their first tournament, which begins on Feb. 19.