UNLV softball coach Pete Manarino knows a good team when he sees one.
He saw one last week when his players stepped onto the practice field to begin preparing for the season.
But with 27 seasons and more than 900 victories under his belt, Manarino knows it takes more than a good team to win a league championship.
“I’m very happy about the progress of this program,” said Manarino, who took over the Rebels after the 2008 season. “We’ve had three good seasons, and now we’re ready to take that next step so we can have a shot at the conference championship. We’ll see how it goes.”
The coach has many reasons to believe he might have a good team. Most notably, he returns the majority of a lineup that finished with five straight victories to go 27-18 overall and 9-5 in the Mountain West Conference in 2011. Conference player of the year Ashli Holland was the only key graduation loss, and Manarino has brought in several promising newcomers to help fill the void.
“It’s early, but I pretty much have a lineup that will be pretty consistent,” Manarino said. “And we might even have a couple of surprises.”
Junior infielder and co-captain Tayler Aleman, a Sierra Vista High School product, noted that the Rebels are hungry after narrowly missing postseason competition with a second-place finish to Brigham Young last year.
“We’re really looking forward to starting a new season and carrying over last year’s success,” said Aleman, who batted .436 with nine home runs and 38 RBIs to lead the team in 2011. “Last year, we fell a little short, and we don’t want to feel that feeling again.”
Senior outfielder Paige Emerson, also a team captain, said she looks forward to ending her career on a high note.
“This is my senior year, and I’d love to be able to win a conference championship,” said Emerson, who made the All-MWC team last season after batting .348. “I want to make it to the NCAA Super Regionals and maybe farther than that.”
BYU has departed the conference, and Manarino thinks a league championship might be more attainable than ever. But he cautioned that his squad will need to iron out a few kinks to make it happen.
“We need to get more production out of our pitchers,” he said. “We need more consistent production.”
Amanda Oliveto went 21-10 with a 2.81 ERA as a freshman last season. She finished with the third-best ERA among Mountain West starters, but she was Manarino’s only reliable pitcher. The remainder of the staff went 6-8.
“We’ve got some good pitchers,” Manarino said. “But we need to find a way to be more consistent. That’s where it all starts.”
Manarino’s offense appears to be in good shape. The Rebels had four of the league’s top 10 hitters and led the Mountain West last season with a .321 batting average and a program-record 54 home runs.
Manarino said he was encouraged by his team’s complete package during a brief fall season.
“We need to build on that,” he said. “We’ve got about three weeks to get ready.”
The Rebels will open against Oklahoma in the Sportco Kickoff Classic on Feb. 10 at Eller Media Stadium.
The tournament will be the first of three hosted by UNLV, with the Louisville Slugger Desert Classic beginning Feb. 16 and the Eller Media Stadium Classic starting March 2 also featuring strong fields.
“A lot of good teams want to come here,” said Manarino, whose team will be tested early by such quality opponents as DePaul, Ohio State, Illinois, New Mexico State, Cal State Fullerton and Notre Dame. “And it’s good exposure. Getting people to come to our stadium is a good showcase for us.”
Jeff Wollard is a freelance reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be contacted at email@example.com.