Softball preview: Bobcats ready to build on record-setting season

Junior second team All-NESCAC pitcher Kirsten Pelletier and sophomore catcher Mary Collette showed great rapport last season on their way to helping Bates break the program record for wins in one season. (File photo by Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College)

LEWISTON, Maine -- In 2018, the Bates softball team broke the program record for most wins in one season. And the great news for Bates fans is that the Bobcats could be even better in 2019. 

The Bobcats get the season underway Sunday in Florida, with the first two of 12 games they are set to play in the upcoming week. 

Bates finished last year with an overall record of 20-14, breaking the previous school record of 18 wins in a season, first set in 2001 and matched in 2012. The Bobcats' five NESCAC victories were the program's most since 2012 and Bates made its first appearance in the NESCAC tournament since 2009.

"Last year was a lot of fun," sixth-year head coach McKell Barnes said on the most recent Bates Bobcast. "I think what that did for our returners was give them a mindset of 'why not us?' And I think moving on to this year, we have a group of six incoming first-years who have never played; so we've been really just letting last year stay in the past and just thinking about the task at hand." 

Bates returns two second team All-NESCAC selections from a year ago. 

In the circle, junior Kirsten Pelletier (Sidney, Maine) finished last season with an 11-9 record, one save and a 2.22 ERA in 24 appearances, 21 starts. Along the way, Pelletier established team single-season records for innings pitched (a league-high 126.1), shutouts (6) and strikeouts (120), and she won two NESCAC Pitcher of the Week awards. She is the second All-NESCAC Bates pitcher since the honors were established in 2001. She threw two no-hitters, including the program's first no-no since 2013. Pelletier can hit as well, finishing third on the team in batting average last year with a slash line of .318/.375/.348 at the plate.

"K.P. has been our workhorse for the last two years and we expect more of that, and expect her to continue to improve into this year and next," Barnes said. "She has a unique mindset and I think that's something that separates her from many other pitchers across our conference. She knows that her best stuff will beat your best stuff and what more can you ask for as a coach?"

Sophomore Caroline Bass (Newton, Mass.) returns as the team's starting left fielder. She led the NESCAC in batting average at .440, finished third in the conference in on-base percentage (.488) and first on the team in slugging percentage (.483). The rookie went 2-for-2 in the season opener against North Central, kicking off a nine-game hitting streak to start her college career. She was hitless in only four games all season, with multiple hits in 16 of Bates' 34 games. In left field, Bass committed only one error on the year. Bass set Bates' single-season records for hits (51), singles (47) and runs scored (35), and came within one stolen base of matching Mary Lewis's 2013 record of 24 steals.

"Caroline continuously works on her craft and her tool box is pretty full with different styles of at bats and I think that makes her really dangerous," Barnes said. "Obviously, her speed is incredible and you can't teach that, she just has a great knack for the game, and we trust her instincts."

When it comes to production, few can match what senior center fielder Andrea Russo (Cheshire, Conn.) has accomplished in her career to date. She enters this season with 120 career hits, just seven shy of Stacia Saniuk's school record. Russo's 79 runs scored are the second-most in program history and she sports a .383 career batting average.

"Andrea has put in so much work these last three years now going into her fourth year, and I think understanding and seeing the fruits of her labor paying off has been really exciting for me to watch and I know for her as well too," Barnes said. "And so we're looking for Andrea to be a leader and she's a table setter and we're going to continue to lean on her to do that for us this upcoming season."

The Bobcats return a lot of talent beyond Pelletier, Bass and Russo.

At the plate, sophomore Payton Buxton (Middlebury, Vt.) led the team in RBIs last season with 24. She is a key pitcher for Bates as well, making 14 appearances in the circle with 12 starts as a first-year. Buxton posted a record of 7-4 with a 3.15 ERA in 73.1 innings pitched, allowing 46 runs (33 earned) on 79 hits. She walked 15 and struck out 65 batters on the season. Buxton threw the Bobcats' second no-hitter of the year, striking out four batters to pick up the win in Bates' 8-1 victory over Maine-Farmington.

"Payton has really, really great stuff and it's sneaky good because she has this very quiet presence on the mound," Barnes said. "She's very calm, cool, and collected and we can always count on her to maintain that."

Junior Julia Panepinto (Buffalo, N.Y.) is the setter for the volleyball team in the fall and starts at third base for the softball team in the spring. A NESCAC All-Academic and All-Sportsmanship selection, Panepinto started all 34 games as a sophomore and hit .304./363./.429 on the season. She went 34-112 at the plate with 19 runs scored, four doubles, two triples, a team-high two home runs, 22 RBIs and 10 walks. 

"Julia is unlike probably any other athlete here at Bates," Barnes said. "Not only is she one of the top leaders in the athletic program, but the amount of work that she puts into the weight room is extremely impressive. She has this greedy 'x factor' energy that you can't teach, it's just ingrained in her personality."

Speaking of leadership, sophomore Mary Collette (Watertown, Conn) earned the starting job behind the plate as a first-year and impressed by building a great rapport with pitchers Pelletier, Buxton and then first-year Jevan Sandhu (Plymouth, N.H.). Collette started all 34 games and recorded 19 assists on the season, catching six runners trying to steal. She hit .245/.283/.327 on the season, going 24-98 at the plate with nine runs scored, eight doubles, 17 runs batted in and five walks.

"Mary has exceeded all of our expectations and she works her tail off behind the plate and hopefully with more catching depth this season we can provide a bit of a break for her to keep her fresh," Barnes said. "We want to be peaking going into the NESCAC playoffs. And I think we now have that flexibility to do that but certainly Mary has really developed her leadership the way she talks to her teammates, the way that she talks to the younger pitching staff, has been really impressive."

Bates only lost two players from last year's team: catcher-turned-shortstop Tori Fitzgerald and second baseman Paige Ahlholm. And the Bobcats welcome six first-years this season who Barnes expects to make an immediate impact.

"We haven't had this kind of depth since I have been here and the first-year class I think is a huge anchor of that," Barnes said. "And they come from pretty much all over the country. So their background and experiences, their different cultures, their different personalities, how that is being sprinkled into our program. We've seen just our overall culture be really positive and supportive and inclusive, and I think people are jiving and helping each other more now than I've seen in years past." 

First-years Kennedy Ishii (Honolulu, Hawaii) and Janell Sato (Honolulu, Hawaii) were high school teammates. They will start right away, with Ishii expected to take over at shortstop. Sato is a power hitter and can play behind the plate or at the corners. 

"They're different styles of hitters," Barnes said. "Kennedy slaps, but she can also slap for power, and she can also stand still and hit for power. She gives us either a Dre or Caroline 2.0 and so that's going to be really exciting stuff for our lineup."

"And then Janell has tremendous hands, she has tremendous barrel control, we're thinking she'll be sliding right into that maybe three, four slot. I certainly think that she'll be one of our top hitters and we're excited to see what she's going to be able to do."  

First-year Emily Samar (New York, N.Y.) will take over for Ahlholm at second base and is already impressing Barnes and her teammates with her defensive abilities. Barnes is looking forward to seeing what fellow first-years Eliza McNulty (Cambridge, Mass.), Danielle Polirer (Bellmore, N.Y.) and Aleah Pagan (Orinda, Calif.) can do on the team's opening week trip to Florida. Polirer provides the Bobcats with a fourth arm to try in the circle. 

According to Barnes, the Bobcats' season-opening trip to Florida is not necessarily about the wins and losses. 

"I think we're going to see our competition this year in Florida be stronger than what we faced last year in Florida," Barnes said. "I don't think we're really thinking about an overall record walking away. Obviously we want to win as many games as we can but what we really, really want to do is prepare ourselves for NESCAC play when we're back. And that's putting together good at bats, that's hitting our spots pitching, defensively playing sound games. So if we do all of those things, I think we'll see that we'll compete and hopefully play well and win some games."

As for NESCAC play, Barnes has high expectations.

"I don't think we're sitting right in the middle of that division; I think we're going to be at the very top of the division," Barnes said. "I think we have the pieces in place; obviously we have to execute but I certainly think that we will be right in that mix of playing for the number one seed in the east (come tournament time)."