UTD’s softball program is gearing up to start their new season following a run in 2016 that matched the school record for wins and saw the team make the semi-finals of the ASC tournament.
Head coach Rich Wieligman, who is entering his second year at the program’s helm, coached the Comets to a 25-20 record in 2016. They earned the third seed in the ASC tournament after they failed to earn a bid in 2015. Coming into the 2017 season, the team had some holes to fill in the roster, including several outfielders and the starting catcher, as well as replacing the leadership the outgoing class had provided.
“A lot of times you don’t understand what your seniors bring to the table until they’re gone and we lost a great group of seniors last year,” Wieligman said.
While the team looked to fill the positions vacated by the recent graduates, new assistant coach Rayn House spent time getting acquainted with the returning student-athletes. House was impressed with the intensity and focus the girls showed when she began to train with them.
“They want to be on the field and that’s something you really need to see coming right off of the break,” House said. “They love each other and they love the game. They show up and they work hard. There’s no wasted time.”
Wieligman has the benefit of experience with the program under his belt as he moves into his second year at UTD. This time around, the players are more comfortable with him and better understand what he wants from them, Wieligman said.
“It allows them to work harder and not worry about me so much,” he said.
For senior pitcher Lauren McLeod, the stability of having a coach she knows is beneficial.
“He’s been stricter than any coach that we’ve had, but it’s better because he makes us keep our nose down and work hard,” she said.
UTD’s strength and conditioning program kept the student-athletes training during the offseason when there weren’t practices. It’s helped them to prepare in a more focused manner than if the athletes were on their own. The scheduled workouts force the players to be ready to go, no matter how they feel.
“It’s made us a lot stronger, faster, harder hitters and better pitchers,” McLeod said. “Most importantly, it also helped us mentally because you get in the mindset that you are a college athlete and you have to work out.”
Wieligman, who cannot check on the softball players for most of the offseason due to NCAA restrictions, said the UTD players can gain an edge over the other teams because of their improved stamina and training. While he was unable to work with the team, the new strength and conditioning program is allowed to keep the players working year-round. After over a year of the program, the athletes are seeing the results from the weight room pay off.
“They love the ability to go work out and get stronger to help them succeed,” Wieligman said.
The players share meals and hold other get-togethers on their own both in the lead up to and during the season to make sure everyone gets along and to avoid any potential problems that may arise.
“Last year, we had a really great season, so we’re just trying to make sure everyone’s a team this year,” McLeod said. “We all have the skills to win, we just have to make sure we’re a family.”
There are a few weeks of practice before the team’s first game and the coaching staff gave everyone things to focus on during the break to prepare to hit the ground running.
“They went and did exactly what we asked them to do in the offseason,” House said. “I have absolutely nothing to worry about.”
The players are looking forward to the challenges of the new season after training hard over the offseason.
“We’ve got a lot more depth than we did last year,” Wieligman said. “I think we’re going to have a little bit more power as a team and still have our speed.”
Looking forward to their schedule, McLeod has her eye on the East Texas Baptist University games as well as on the school that knocked UTD out of the ASC tournament last season.
“UT-Tyler won the national championship last year for Division III, so we’re really gunning for them,” she said.
Wieligman plans to focus on each game as they come, taking it one at a time and being sure to start off on the right foot.
“I think if you look ahead, you forget somebody,” Wieligman said. “That first game is important for us right now. We’ll see if we come out and take care of business there.”