The Longhorns had the pleasure of watching pitcher Blaire Luna dominate opponents the last four years. In her time in Austin, Luna had 1,428 strikeouts and eight no-hitters, including one in last year’s postseason that sent Texas to the Women’s College World Series.
But, with Luna now an alumna, the Longhorns are going to have to fill her void at the most important position in the field.
“Fast pitch softball revolves around the pitcher,” head coach Connie Clark said. “It’s an important part of the success of the team. We have to pass that baton on.”
Texas has four pitchers on the roster this year, and even though Clark said they will give each pitcher a look in their non-conference schedule, the favorite to take on the ace role is junior Gabby Smith.
Smith has pitched in 21 games with 40 strikeouts in her collegiate career, but she worked this offseason knowing that she would have to help fill the hole left by Luna.
“This summer I wanted to get better and be the pitcher we needed,” Smith said. “I played in a league and really got some more pitching time that I didn’t really have my first two years. So that got my confidence up.”
During the fall season, Smith was able to translate her summer work into results on the field, striking out 20 batters while allowing only one hit and no runs in 13 innings pitched.
Smith said she has learned a lot from Luna during the past couple of years.
“She still lives here in Austin, and we’ll still pitch together, and she’ll give me a few pointers on spins and stuff like that,” Smith said. “She’s always been there to help me.”
The Longhorns also have sophomore Holly Kern who is the only other returning pitcher. Last year, Kern had a 7-3 record and a 2.74 earned run average in 15 games.
In addition to Smith and Kern, two freshmen round out the pitching rotation for Texas. Lauren Slattern struck out nine and gave up only four hits and no runs in 12.1 innings and Tiara Davis allowed one earned run on 10 hits in 10.1 innings this fall.
Clark said Smith has set herself apart from the rest of the group, but she’s giving the whole staff some playing time early on to see who emerges as the ace.
“We’ll be using all four of them to give them experience in a game,” Clark said. “From there, we’ll make a decision.”
While the pitching staff may be short on experience, the Longhorns do have an advantage at catcher. Senior Mandy Ogle handled the pitch-calling duties last year and — as the leader on the Texas defense — hopes she’ll be able to help the young staff develop.
“Having Ogle be able to work with the pitching staff is a big plus for us,” Clark said.
Smith admitted that it will be difficult for them to fill Luna’s hole on the field, but it’s something they’re looking forward to.
“Taking over Blaire’s spot, that’s something we’re going to embrace,” Smith said.