weather icon Clear
RJ App
Vegas News, Alerts, ePaper

UNLV softball focused on taking next step to NCAA Tournament

April Visser learned some lessons last season with the UNLV softball team.

The fifth-year second baseman understands what pitching in the Mountain West looks like now. She knows the makeup of the league. But most importantly, she has a better idea of what it’s going to take to win the conference, which traditionally receives only one bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Visser was one of the breakout stars for the Rebels last season after transferring from North Carolina State. She led the Rebels with 15 home runs and hit .355, helping UNLV finish third in the conference.

It wasn’t enough to earn the Rebels an NCAA Tournament berth.

“Coming in May, we don’t want to be sitting at home,” Visser said. “We want to be on the ballfield.”

UNLV is again projected to finish third in the Mountain West, but the Rebels plan to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009.

UNLV opens its season against Southern Utah at 4:30 p.m. Friday as part of the Rebel Kickoff tournament at Eller Media Stadium. The Rebels face No. 7 Arkansas at 7 p.m. Friday and also have games over the weekend against Baylor and Weber State.

“They’re kind of chomping at the bit to face some competition other than each other,” coach Kristie Fox said.

While the Rebels came up short of an NCAA Tournament berth, they capped the 2022 season by reaching the championship game of the National Invitational Softball Championship. UNLV lost to Baylor 4-0.

Visser said the NISC experience will be especially important this season because the Mountain West will play a postseason softball tournament for the first time since 2006, with the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament going to the winner.

Getting to participate in a tournament-style competition to end last season taught the Rebels about the stamina and determination needed to string together several wins in a row on consecutive days, Visser said.

UNLV returns most of its contributors from last season. Visser is joined in the infield by third baseman Lauryn Barker, who started all 58 games in 2022.

Senior Maddie Schmidt, the starting left fielder last season, is moving to shortstop to replace 2022 Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year Samantha Diaz, who graduated. First-team All-Mountain West selection Ariana Martinez will slot in to replace longtime Rebels star Mia Trejo at first base.

The Rebels also return three important contributors in the outfield. Sophomore Sofia Morales led the team by hitting .378 in her first year with Rebels. She’s expected to move to left field from center because of the return of junior Janyssa Martin, fully healthy after missing several games with a broken thumb in 2022. Her 1.200 OPS led UNLV last season.

Senior Denise Armendariz, a second-team All-Mountain West selection, moves into right field after starring in a designated player role last season.

“Making sure that — offensively — we’re taking care of business is going to help provide the other side of the ball a little more relief,” Fox said.

UNLV’s situation in the circle is less clear. Fox and the Rebels leaned heavily on ace Jenny Bressler last season. She was 29-7 with a 1.66 ERA and racked up 225 strikeouts in 2022, but she transferred to Virginia for her final year of eligibility.

Pitching coach Emily Vincent also departed after the 2022 season. She will be replaced by Tina Andreana, a former Canadian National Team pitcher who previously coached with Fox at UNLV in 2018.

Junior Jasmine Martin and senior Alanna Thiede, a former Oklahoma transfer, are UNLV’s most experienced returning pitchers. Fox said she expects the team’s pitching approach to be more of a team-based effort.

Martin, a Las Vegas native and Shadow Ridge alum, said she’s excited to step up with lots of innings available.

“We’re all going to have to work together this year,” Martin said. “We’re all going to get more innings than we’ve had in the past, and it’s going to take all of us.”

Contact reporter Andy Yamashita at ayamashita@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ANYamashita on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.