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Vikings, despite limited formal practice, excited to return to the diamond; Ducks, Beavers off to fast starts

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND STATE ATHLETICS/MEGAN CONNELLY - The return of outfielder Marissa Bruno for a fifth year is a silver lining to the pandemic for the Portland State softball program.Like all of Portland State's athletic programs, the Viking softball team is starting the 2021 season behind its Big Sky Conference opponents.

The Vikings were unable to practice together until Jan. 22, while the other six Big Sky teams were able to train together beginning in the fall.

But, don't expect complaints from coach Meadow McWhorter or her team. Instead, the word "gratitude" is a focus of the program.

"We are appreciative of everything we can do," she said. "We're not taking it for granted."

The Vikings opened the season Feb. 26-28 going 1-4 over three days in Arizona. The losses all came to teams ranked in the top 25, the win over Grand Canyon. They are slated to face Boise State and Oregon March 5-6 in Eugene.

It's the first of three weekend tournaments before the Vikings are scheduled to open Big Sky play on March 27 at the Gordon Faber Complex in Hillsboro.

Portland State was picked by coaches to finish fourth among the seven Big Sky Conference softball teams.

McWhorter said the Vikings haven't focused on traditional goal-setting because, with the unpredictability of life during the pandemic, she wants her players focused on making the most of every opportunity to practice together or to compete.

Three of the eight seniors on the roster retuned for an extra season after the 2020 season was halted by COVID-19. McWhorter called the return of pitcher Katie Schroeder and outfielders Tayler Gunesch and Marissa Bruno a rare positive to come out of the pandemic.

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND STATE ATHLETICS/MEGAN CONNELLY - Katie Schroeder, a fifth-year senior, is the most experienced of Portland States' seven pitchersSchroeder is a Camas, Washington, native who has appeared in 34 games in the circle since transferring to PSU from Utah State in 2019. She is the most experienced of seven pitchers on the team, and one of five who pitched last spring.

Olivia Grey led the Vikings in appearances (14), starts (eight) and ERA (3.62) and strikeouts (58) as a freshman in 2020. The Woodland, Washington, native figures to have a prominent role this season.

Fourth-year junior Serafine Parrish, senior Haley Schimmel and sophomore Marisol Gaona also saw time in the circle a year ago.

Freshmen Allicitie Frost and lefty Bailey Rose also are pitching options, but also might work their way into the batting order.

McWhorter said each pitcher will see time in nonconference play to help sort out roles. But she expects the depth of her staff to be a strength.

"Hitters are so much better than they used to be" at adjusting to a pitcher after a couple of at-bats, she said.

The pitchers will throw to senior Rachel Menlove, who has started 123 games behind the plate. Menlove was second-team all-conference her first two seasons. The arrival of freshmen catchers Paetynn Lopez and Julia Perkins provide needed depth behind the plate.

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND STATE ATHLETICS/ANNEMARIE JACQUES - Senior catcher Rachel Menlove (8) has started 123 games vehind the plate for Portland State's softball team.Veteran outfielders Gunesch and Bruno hit at the top of the lineup last season.

Gunesch, a fourth-year center fielder, has a .301 batting average and 29 stolen bases in 135 games with the Vikings.

Bruno hit .384 in 24 games before the 2020 season was halted, raising her career average to .322 in 156 games.

Among the other four outfielders in the mix, junior Hannah Sisul (La Salle Prep) showed flashes of potential in 10 appearances in 2020.

Power-hitting first baseman Emily Johansen (Tualatin High) had a solid freshman spring in 2020, batting .288 with eight home runs and 26 RBIs. Senior Ariana Abalos earned a chance to be a regular at third base with a lot of hard work over the 10 months between games for the Vikings.

The middle infield positions were more of a mystery heading into the season opener. In the mix are juniors Olivia Dean, a transfer from Centralia College, and Hannah Bell along with freshmen including Mariah Rodriguez and Maddie Thompson.

They are all strong defensive players, so those who are producing at the plate will earn playing time, according to McWhorter.

The coach called this the most talented roster she's had in five years leading the PSU program. She likes the speed that's been added to the roster, and the ability to use speed and power to get on base.

But what excites her most is the culture that's developed during the pandemic as players and coaches built strong connections through virtual meetings and during time together in small groups around an indoor batting cage.

"We talk a lot about attitude and effort," McWhorter said. "Don't take reps off. Enjoy playing the game and being with your teammates" because in the age of COVID-19, the next game is not guaranteed.

Oregon — Starting the season 9-0, including a win over No. 1 UCLA, the Ducks one of four Pac-12 teams in the top 10 of USA Today/National Fastpitch Coaches Association poll. Oregon returns 19 of 21 players from the team that was off to a 22-2 start in 2020. Two key seniors who opted to stay for an extra season are outfielder and leadoff hitter Haley Cruse and pitcher Samaria Diaz, one of five pitchers who are off to strong starts in the circle. Shortstop Alyssa Brito, one of 11 freshmen among the 24 players, started fast and earned Pac-12 freshman of the week honors for the week ending Feb. 21 after hitting two home runs in a sweep at Fresno State.

Oregon State — Junior Mariah Mazon is one of four pitchers who saw action in 2020 when she had 10 wins and a 1.18 ERA. She was also the team's top hitter (.377) as the Beavers went 17-9 in the shortened season. Among eight freshman, third baseman/leadoff hitter Madison Simon won Pac-12 freshman of the week on Feb. 16 after going 7 for 19 and scoring five runs during the Beavesrs' 5-0 opening weekend.

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