Wolf Pack softball guns for a return to the NCAA Regional

Sadaria McAlister
Sadaria McAlister is part of a talented returning cast of hitters for Nevada. (John Byrne/Nevada athletics)

Nevada softball was consistent last season.

The Wolf Pack went 25-25 overall, 12-12 in the Mountain West, 13-13 in neutral-site games, 8-7 at home and 7-8 on the road. Pretty much 50-50 ball.

Nevada finished fifth in the MW (out of nine teams) for the second straight season and reached the NISC postseason tournament for the second straight year. In the 2019 preseason poll, Nevada was picked to finish sixth in the conference, but the team is gunning for more than that. It's aiming for its first NCAA Regional berth since 2009.

"Simple answer," coach Josh Taylor said when asked what is required for his team to make a Regional this season. "We have to pitch. If we pitch, we have the offense to do it."

Here's a look at the Wolf Pack's 2019 outlook as it prepares for its season opener Saturday in Sacramento.

On offense

Nine of Nevada's top 11 hitters from last season return, the two big losses being outfielders Erika Hansen (.393, 15 homers) and Aaliyah Gibson (.298, eight steals).

The Wolf Pack hit .310 as a team last season, up from .288 the year prior, and its offense should be its greatest strength again in 2019. All-conference infielders Kenzi Goins (.353, seven homers), Sierra Mello (.379) and Lauren Gutierrez (.295, four homers) lead the way. Local products Sadaria McAlister (.330, 15 steals) and Jessica Sellers (.241, three homers) add depth to the lineup in the outfield, and Alyssa Mendez (.297) is an experienced bat.

Nevada's 6.1 runs per game last season ranked second in the MW behind only Boise State (6.8). It also cracked 47 homers, third in the league. Scoring shouldn't be much of an issue for this group. The question is whether Nevada can match last season's 327 runs, which were the most in school history.

In the circle

Nevada has four pitchers on the roster, including three who played for the Wolf Pack last season.

Locals Kali Sargent and Julia Jensen will battle for the No. 1 role. Sargent (8-10), a senior from Douglas High, posted a 4.15 ERA in 23 games, including 12 starts. Sargent struck out 58 and walked 42 in 82.2 innings, so improving that margin will be key. She's expected to enter the season fighting for the ace spot with Jensen (13-12), a sophomore from Reed High. She posted a 4.27 in her rookie campaign, starting strong before struggling late, as many freshmen do. She struck out 151 and walked 81 in 175.1 innings. Rachel Rodriguez (0-1, 12.78 ERA) also returns for her senior season.

The fourth pitcher is freshman Kendall Fritz, who recorded more than 600 strikeouts and posted an ERA of 1.45 over her junior and senior seasons of high school. She should see extended innings this season.

Nevada must pitch better to leap to the top of the MW. The Wolf Pack's 4.32 ERA was eighth out of nine MW teams last season. It also could use better defense after posting a fielding percentage of 0.957 last year. Taylor expects that defense to improve in 2019.

The schedule

Nevada will be road warriors to start the season. The Wolf Pack's first 23 games are away from Hixson Park, with its home opener coming March 15 against Utah State.

"We thrive on the road," Taylor said. "We don't really have a problem playing on the road. I think our girls really enjoy it."

The Wolf Pack plays three Power 5 opponents (Maryland, Oregon State, Arkansas) and eight teams that reached the NCAA Tournament. The season opener is a doubleheader Saturday against Santa Clara and Sac State in Sacramento. Nevada hosts rival UNLV on May 3-5.

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