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UTEP softball hopes to bounce back this year

Claudia Hernandez
The UTEP softball team will open up the 2018 season in Tempe, Ariz., against Missouri.

After a disappointing 2017 season, in which the Miners were only able to collect 12 wins and a last-place finish in the West Division of Conference USA, the UTEP softball team will strive to take advantage of a fresh start and a schedule that might benefit the Miners.

UTEP head coach Tobin Echo-Hawk, who enters her fifth year at the helm, said this year will be different and is excited about her team and this year’s schedule. With 21 home games and a mix of quality opponents, UTEP is eager to hit the ground running.

UTEP finished last season with a 12-36 overall record, going 6-18 in the conference. This year, they are projected to finish last according to the C-USA preseason poll.

Echo-Hawk says the opponents on the schedule make for an exciting campaign.

“We definitely have some challenging games on our schedule, but we also have some games that we should win and we should compete,” Echo-Hawk said. “I’m excited about our schedule this year, more so than any other year I’ve had.”

Leading the team is junior Cortney Smith, an infielder who was named to 2018 C-USA Preseason All-Conference team. In 2017, she was named to the All-Conference USA second team after a successful sophomore year. She led the team with a .364 batting average  (47-129). She was also ranked 12th in the conference in hits.

The Miners have three seniors on their team this season, each who have made an impact.

Senior Kailtin Ryder, who was 2017 All-Conference USA second team and led the team with 51 hits, is putting last year behind her. Her success in the batter’s box makes her one of the biggest threats for the Miners. She looks to secure several school records this season as she only needs 21 hits to secure a spot in the school’s top-10 list.

“We’re coming out and competing,” Ryder said. “This is a different year. We have many girls that are returning, but it’s a different group, a different feel. It’s a family bond, we know that we have each other’s backs on and off the field, so that’s the difference and I think that’s what the fans need to know.”

Senior Courtney Clayton enters this year as the Miner’s fourth all-time hitter with a .349 career average. She ranks fourth in career assists, with 313, and needs 48 more to reach No 1. all-time. In 2017, Clayton was named to the C-USA preseason team. She led the team for a second consecutive season in runs scored (29), hit 3.14 (50-159), while only striking out five times and was ranked No. 22 in the nation as the toughest to strikeout.

Right off the bat, the Miners start off the season in the Kajikawa Tournament, which is held at  in Tempe, Ariz. on Friday, Feb. 9, against the Missouri Tigers, who are receiving votes in the AP Top 25 poll. This will be a tournament that consists of some of the better teams in the country including the No. 3 ranked Oregon Ducks.

UTEP continues on the road in the Marucci Desert Classic in Las Vegas on Feb. 16, featuring Nevada, Boise State, UNM, UNLV and South Dakota.

The Miners then open up for their first home game against rival New Mexico State  on Feb. 20, followed by the UTEP Tournament, where Portland State and Idaho State will pay a visit.

Echo-Hawk says working on hitting in the off-season has helped the orange and blue get into game mode.

“That’s kind of our strength. We have some great hitters, a little mix of speed, power, contact,” Echo-Hawk said. “We’ve been really trying to put ourselves in game situations so that we can be prepared for whatever it is, both offensively and defensively.”

Clayton says the team’s dynamic is special this year and something the fans should look out for.

“We’re focusing on making sure that no matter what happens on that field, we have that foundation and we’re going to be strong no matter what,” Clayton said. “I think that’s something that we’ve worked on in the off season and we’re also working on now, and I think that will be a strength coming up into the season.”

First pitch against the Missouri Tigers is set for 11:30 p.m. MST in Tempe.

Follow Elenie Gonzalez on Twitter @eleniegonz

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UTEP softball hopes to bounce back this year