Nov. 21, 2013
LOGAN, Utah - When Steve Johnson took over as the head coach of the Utah State softball program, in June 2013 he knew he had a lot of work ahead. Taking over a team that had just 11 wins the year before, Johnson saw the talent there was in the players and was ready to help them move forward.
"Looking at the record and stats from last year, our team is a lot better than their 11 wins. Offensively we're doing some situational things that have impressed us quite a bit," Johnson said. "There's a lot of talent here, it's just a matter of putting it together and harnessing it."
Jumping into his Aggie tenure, Johnson got the team started with a successful fall season. The team played doubleheaders against both Salt Lake Community College (Sept. 14) and the College of Southern Idaho (Oct. 6), ending the calendar year with an alumni game (Oct. 12).
"We saw some positive signs in the SLCC game, but we weren't near where we needed to be, especially offensively. Noelle (Johnson) and Cheyenne (Harper) both pitched six innings of no-hit ball which was a positive for us," Johnson said. "We competed hard and learned some things about ourselves that gave us the foundation for the next four weeks of fall ball before we played our next games."
A couple of weeks after the SLCC matchup, the Aggies took on the College of Southern Idaho, seeing great improvement and more ideal results.
"We finished up fall games against CSI. They were a good team last year with their top returning pitcher winning more than 20 games," Johnson said. "We were a completely different team in those second games. We beat them 10-1 and 6-2. We hit five home runs on the weekend, which is more than half of what they hit all of last year."
Johnson and his coaching staff, which includes Sarah Sigrest and Michelle Schroeder, have been pleased with the progress they have seen throughout the fall and the things the players learned from it all.
The players are starting to experience some success with what we're doing. We still have a lot to learn.
"Defensively, we played well, and the pitching was strong again. We were using pitchers in different roles to see how they would react. We gave them different roles from a starting role to a relieving role, having to close out a game, different things we can look at in the spring. I thought we grew the most at that time," Johnson said.
The next weekend, the current Aggies welcomed several former softball players back to Logan for the annual alumni game. The team spent the day playing together before throwing a tailgate party and attending the Aggie football game against Boise State.
"I liked using the football game around the event," Johnson said. "We had our thing in the morning, had a tailgate where our kids and the alumni could interact and spend some time together off the field and then cheering on the Aggies is always a fun weekend."
The alumni game is something that has been a tradition with many sports teams, but is one Johnson is definitely grateful was in place when he got to Utah State.
"I think with the history of this program, it's important for us to keep connected to the past - not just the recent past, but back in the 80's when we were very successful. It will help us continue to grow the program with contacts and recruiting. It keeps them involved with something that was special to them," Johnson said. "I look forward to bringing more alumni back, trying to do some special events and recognition in the future. I think continuing to get them involved is critical for our growth on several fronts. I think next year will be a lot bigger."
Throughout the fall season, the team has worked on developing their skills and putting all the pieces together to try and turn the program around.
"The big thing coming out of the fall is that the kids are having fun playing the game. They're working incredibly hard," Johnson said. "Because they're seeing some success, they've bought into the system completely."
In the time between the fall games and the start of the spring season on Feb. 6 against Southern Utah and Idaho State, the coaching staff and players are spending time in individual workouts, fine-tuning their position and hitting skills.
"This is really the time where we get better when we can have one-on-one time with the girls. We're trying to tweak the little things we couldn't fix when we were in the whole team setting," Johnson said. "The growth that we're continuing to have is good for when we come back in January."
From the experience of fall and these individual coaching sessions, Johnson and his assistants have gotten to know the players they have and the strengths they bring to the team.
Sophomore pitcher Noelle Johnson is one who quickly caught Johnson's attention. Johnson appeared in 32 games last season with a team-high 127 strikeouts
"Noelle is one who has really stood out from a pitching standpoint. She's throwing incredibly well," Johnson said. "She still has some things to work on that she acknowledges, but she really stood out in the fall."
Johnson also mentioned junior outfielders Hailey Froton and Jolene Koons as those whom he was especially impressed with throughout the fall. Froton earned all-Western Athletic Conference honors last season, finishing with a .316 average. Koons was fourth in hitting with a .264 average.
"Hailey is one who hit really well in the fall, especially in that second game against CSI, hitting two home runs," Johnson said. "Jolene is a kid right now who could probably start at any position for us other than pitcher. She's stepped up to be a real versatile player, working hard at a lot of different positions."
The team spent the fall identifying and developing the strengths of the team, while working on the weaknesses.
"Defensively we're moving some people around in different positions in game-like situations. There have been a lot of girls who have stood out and impressed me. We've developed a lot more power offensively. We're now just looking to be consistent with what they're learning," Johnson said.
With Johnson's hiring came two new assistant coaches in Schroeder and Sarah.
"They've both been incredible with the kids so far this fall. They're both full of energy and have been excited to get out of the office and onto the field. They're putting in extra time and helping the individuals. Their one-on-one attention has really helped us grow," Johnson said. "The kids have really appreciated the extra time and attention they've been getting. It's really making a difference with what we're doing."
Schroeder was a three-year letterwinner at Stanford. Additionally, she played for the Western Australia Women's Open softball team in 2010 and 2011, while also playing for the Western Australia Women's Open baseball team in 2012. She came to Logan after working for the Softball Performance Workshop in Placentia, Calif. She was a private softball instructor, working with kids from ages 8-18 years old.
"Michelle has taken on a lot of the hitting individuals and really coaching them up. Both of them have been high-energy and fantastic out on the practice field. They're doing a great job for us," said Johnson
A pitching specialist, Sigrest comes from one season as the volunteer assistant coach at Texas Tech. As a player, she was a four-year starter at Jacksonville University. During her playing career at JU, she was named the Atlantic Sun Pitcher of the Year in 2011 and was first-team all-conference. Sigrest also finished her career with the most wins in school history.
"Sarah is very passionate about her pitchers and about her pitchers being athletes. She's working on getting them in shape," Johnson said. "They're working about as hard as they ever have and it's starting to show."
As they prepare to work hard in the off-season, the Utah State softball team is hoping to strengthen their skills and prepare to be successful in their first season in the Mountain West Conference.
"I hope in the spring we've got a good team out there. We're building this program on pitching, speed and defense. Everything starts in the circle, so we hope our top kids are hitting their spots and keeping us in games," Johnson said. "We emphasize not giving up free passes and keeping the ball in the park. We're going to put a defense behind them that will make routine plays. Spectacular plays just happen and it's hard to coach those up. Offensively we want to put pressure on the other team. More games are lost by a team that makes an error and the other team is there to capitalize on it. We want to be that other team."
The Aggies will start their spring season on Thursday, Feb. 6. at the BYU-hosted St. George Tournament. They will play in several California tournaments before playing their first home game on Friday, March 21. The full 2014 schedule is available at www.utahstateaggies.com.
Fans can keep up with all of the Aggie softball action at www.utahstateaggies.com. Follow Utah State athletics, including softball, at http://twitter.com/USUSoftball.com, as well as on facebook, at https://www.facebook.com/USUSoftball.
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