Like its older brother baseball, softball is a game that takes time to unfold. The season is long, with 55 games, and decisions for a coach are determined by the variables in a given situation.
As she begins her 30th season leading the Huskies softball team in Miami on Friday, Karen Mullins ’79 (ED), ’80 MA says that perspective is an important element in learning to make good decisions.
“When I was younger, you wanted to open the season with a bang and end with a bang,” Mullins says. “You have a different perspective and understanding now. These first three weekends [of the season] are like little quizzes. The exam doesn’t start until the Big East conference opens up. If you look at it that way, it will give us feedback. If we’re using those first few weekends to get ourselves on track and in the game mode that we want to be in, then it’s not about the W’s and L’s; it’s about what level are you playing the game at and is it good enough to be competitive and get where you want to be in the conference.”
Mullins is one of just 43 coaches to win 800 games during a career, with a record of 833-571-5 overall, including 823-561-5 at UConn. She has produced nine All-Americans and led eight teams to the NCAA Tournament, including a trip to the 1993 NCAA Women’s College World Series. Since the Big East softball tournament began, the Huskies have won seven of the 15 conference tournament championships.
“She has so much passion for the game,” says senior outfielder Marissa Guches ’13 (CLAS), this year’s team captain. “You can see how much she knows about the game. She knows when to let us know when we’re messing up and what we need to do.”
Adds head baseball coach Jim Penders ’94 (CLAS), ’98 MA: “Trailblazer is the right word to describe Karen. She didn’t start the program, but she was on the first team they had here. To be [coaching] for 30 years is something I’m in awe of.”
Over the past couple of seasons, Mullins has worked to improve a young squad. Last year, the goal was to return to the Big East Championships. With a 21-27 record, the team made it to the postseason but lost in the first round of the tournament. In 2013, the Huskies return a core of veteran players and a have a group of talented freshmen who hope to finish among the top five in the highly competitive Big East.
“We feel pretty good about our squad this year,” says Mullins. “Even though we lost some critical players, we do return a good core group that has been through the fire and knows what to expect. I think last year getting into the Big East championship and losing in the first round, we know we want to go further this year and we’re capable of it.”
The Huskies return five of the team’s top six hitters from last season, including Guches, infielder Maddy Schiappa ’14 (BUS), outfielder Kim Silva ’13, shortstop Emily O’Donnell ’15 (CLAS), and catcher Andrea Huelsenbeck ’14 (CLAS). The team will look to Kiki Saveriano ’13 (CLAS) to lead the pitchers, along with contributions from Lauren Duggan ’15 (CLAS), Katelyn Callahan ’14 (CLAS), and freshman Alyson Ambler ’16 (CLAS).
Mullins says the freshmen class – which in addition to Ambler includes outfielder Alyssa Gardea, catcher Jacklyn Dubois, and infielder Lexi Gifford – have helped to improve the team, and she expects several will see action regularly during the season, something that will important when conference play begins in late March. Preseason rankings placed South Florida at No. 12 and Louisville at No. 17 in the national polls.
“The conference is just so competitive. South Florida is back from the World Series and returned almost their whole team,” she says. “Louisville went 53-3 last year, and had a great opener last weekend. We know we’re in one of the top conferences in the country.”
Guches says the team is eager to improve and will use last season’s final game as motivation to return to the postseason and produce a better result. As one of the team leaders, she wants to.
“It does make you hungry. We were able to go to the Big East tournament, but not as high as we would have liked,” Guches says. “We know what we need to do to be better. As a senior, you want to go out and leave your mark on the program. I’m looking for a lot of heart [in teammates]. The season is long. We play 55 games. We have to focus. We love this game for a reason. If we work cohesively together as a team, we’re going to be successful; if we lose that focus, we’re going to make mistakes.”
Mullins says the work ethic set by first baseman Audrey Grinnell ’14 (CLAS) is typical of what she hopes to see as her young team grows throughout the season.
“She comes in early to practice, stays late, and takes extra batting practice,” Mullins says. “I think you’re going to see that pay off, and a metamorphosis in helping us this year.”
Helping to motivate student-athletes to maximize their abilities has been part of Mullins’ approach to guiding her team since the beginning. In addition to their success on the diamond, they have also succeeded in the classroom, with 96 percent of softball players earning their degrees and nearly half of them reaching the Dean’s List.
“I think I’ve learned it’s all about the people,” Mullins says. “Every year you have new challenges, but it’s about the people who are surrounding you and it’s about the players; helping them to develop and become great citizens, good parents, and get good jobs. Seeing them develop into responsible young adults is really cool.”
The softball team begins the 2013 season with a series of games in Florida, starting against Binghamton at 11 a.m. on Feb. 15. The Huskies open their home season with a double-header against Fairfield at noon on March 23 at Burrill Family Field at the Connecticut Softball Complex. The complete schedule is available on the softball team website.