STORRS, Conn. -- Described by head coach Jen McIntyre as a team with "tons of personality" at the senior banquet in late April, the University of Connecticut softball team made strides for the future in the 2016 season.
Led by Second Team All-Conference selection Lexi Gifford, the Huskies (19-33, 4-12 AAC) nearly pulled-off a major upset in the first round of the American Athletic Conference Tournament against UCF; but that game tells just part of the story.
Behind the leadership of five graduating seniors, UConn put itself in a position to succeed this season in McIntyre's second year at the helm. Two players hit over .300, seven recorded a double-digit amount of RBI and a freshman pitcher made the most appearances in the circle.
It may have just been a first-round exit in the AAC Tournament, but the future looks bright for a determined UConn squad.
The Huskies played a tough schedule, boasting 11 teams ranked in the RPI's Top 75 -- including three in their own conference (USF, UCF and Tulsa). The 2016 slate also had UConn play 40 games away from Storrs, a place it was 7-5 this season.
Eventually, all roads led to Tulsa, Okla. where the Huskies nearly mounted a last-inning comeback against No. 25 UCF with Gifford's two-run home run in the seventh. Despite dominant relief pitching from junior Kayla Doty, a 3-2 loss ended the season for UConn.
Despite the loss, a team that fought for two extra-inning victories against Boston College (11 innings) and Houston (Taylor Townsend walk-off double) at different times this season showed mounts of promise.
The five departing seniors leave a hole in the UConn roster, one that will be filled in the offseason, but the return of all three pitchers from this season is a good start.
Doty, along with sophomore Chelsea Eckert and freshman standout Jill Stockley, all had their moments of dominance. The pitching trio accounted for all of UConn's innings and will return with more experience in 2017.
Doty and Stockley each took home multiple AAC Weekly Honor Roll selections, two of seven Huskies to earn the distinction. The freshman hurler led the team in ERA (2.75), wins (9), appearances (30), complete games (10), shut outs (4), innings (142.2) and strikeouts (78).
On the offensive side, Gifford led the Huskies with a .316 batting average, 49 hits and 26 RBI, while junior Dominique Pinto led with 10 doubles. Gifford, Pinto and senior Alyson Ambler tied for the team lead with four homers each.
At the same time, first-year players were producing. Freshman Ally Hernandez hit .333 (11-of-33) this season, while fellow freshman Kelli Bates earned 48 starts in 50 appearances. Hernandez hit a grand slam in a 6-0 win over Central Connecticut on April 13, while freshman Taylor Smith smacked a pinch-hit, three-run homer against East Carolina on April 17.
Compared to the 2015 season, the Huskies improved in the following categories -- hits, runs, batting average, on-base percentage and stolen bases. Regarding pitching, they improved in ERA, complete games, hits, runs, walks and opposing batting average.
With multiple three-game winning streaks, as well as being in AAC contention entering the final weekend of the season, UConn looks to the offseason to improve in the win-loss column next year.
Make no mistake though; progress is being made.