Texas Classic marks beginning of new year for Texas


Elisabeth Dillon

Junior outfielder Taylor Hoagland watches the ball fly off her bat during batting practice at Red and Charline McCombs field. Hoagland returns from a summer campaign with the USA National Softball team where she gained valuable experience playing with some of the nation’s top athletes. The Longhorns open play tonight against Cal State Fullerton.

Garrett Callahan

Nine months ago, the Longhorns completed in a dramatic fashion what was one of their best seasons in UT history. They shattered multiple school records, establishing them as a favorite going into the NCAA College World Series. Unfortunately, their season ended a little early when they lost two straight in the Regional Round right here in Austin against Houston and Louisiana-Lafayette. However, for the Longhorns, it was a learning experience from which they hope to grow.

The Texas Classic, held in Austin at Red and Charline McCombs Field, opened today and Texas has its first game of their 2012 season tonight against Cal State Fullerton. The Longhorns were ranked 19th in the preseason polls, according to ESPN.com/USA Softball, and are the only ranked team going into their first tournament.

“I think the team is ready, and I love their focus,” head coach Connie Clark said. “We have been talking since July about what we’re bringing back and coming into this year.”

Clark, who has been at Texas for 15 years, has been waiting for the start of this season since last year’s disappointing finish. One of her main focuses has been changing the competitive spirit of the team.

“We talked a lot about competitive spirit and have been talking about that ever since [last year],” Clark said. “The talent is here, but it’s just about going out and competing against the game. We had to define what competitive spirit was, and we are really still working on that … but more than that, we are trying to teach them about behavior.”

Leadership is a big part of this year’s focus as well. A trio of seniors has been selected to captain the Longhorns. Lexy Bennett, Courtney Craig and Nadia Taylor are ready to lead the team deep into the post-season this year. They all lobbied for captain because they felt that they were all on the same page and had enough experience collectively to positively mentor their teammates.

“The seniors have been together all four years, so we obviously have that experience that some of the girls don’t have,” Bennett said. “I think we can take that experience and teach that to the other girls.”

Taylor also added, “I think all the pieces will be clicking on every cylinder, and I think as a group, we all want to work together with team unity and trust each other.”

Texas has a solid team this year, with a duo of strong freshman and multiple strong returners. Junior Taylor Hoagland, who was named to the All-Big 12 First Team for the past two years, set Texas single-season records with 15 home runs and 54 runs scored last year. Alongside her, freshman Gabby Smith is expected to be a strong contributor for the Longhorns. She comes into UT after being named her District MVP for the past two years and earning a 2011 ESPN All-American First Team selection as a utility player.

Coming off a disappointing postseason, the Longhorns are ready to get back into the game and see what they learned from the offseason. To them, this first tournament provides the opportunity to forget last season and make an important statement about this year’s team. These Longhorns are chomping at the bit to come out and be on top again.

Printed on Thursday, February 9, 2012 as: No. 19 Longhorns host season opening tourney