By Dave Wagner
Armando Quiroz has a big task at hand.
Hired last week as Eastern New Mexico University’s softball coach, Quiroz inherited a team put together by Kevin Blaskowski before he took the head coaching job in December at rival West Texas A&M, which will begin competition next year.
Four years removed from a berth in the NCAA Division II national tournament, the Zias have endured three coaching changes in just over two years, two of them in January. They’ve gone 35-65 since 2003, including 5-35 in the Lone Star Conference South Division.
But Quiroz said they have the makings of a competitive team.
“I didn’t know what to expect, and neither did (the players),” he said. “But my motto is ‘expect to win,’ and I told them that the first day.
“We’re kind of an unknown. What I do like is their work ethic. If you work hard, good things can happen for you.”
Last month, the preseason poll in the six-team LSC South had the Zias sixth — by a wide margin. But they’re looking at the bright side of it.
“That’s the place to be,” said junior catcher Courtney McClasky, one of a handful of returning regulars. “The underdog comes out on top many times. I think the conference is underestimating our team.”
The Zias, whose roster includes just one senior but 11 juniors, open the season on Friday with pool games against University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Washburn in the Angelo State Classic at San Angelo, Texas.
McClasky, who hit .297 with two homers and 13 RBIs last season, said the team has adjusted well to Quiroz and new graduate assistant Amber Daniel after finding out about Blaskowski’s departure over the Christmas break.
“Obviously, we didn’t expect it,” she said. “It is (a tough adjustment), but I think with all the juniors on the team it helped because it’s nobody’s last year.
“Everybody’s really positive about the change.”
ENMU (11-36, 1-19 South in 2004) has three returnees who saw regular action last year in McClasky, junior second baseman Tracy Jordan (a team-best .326, 3 homers, 26 RBIs) and sophomore left fielder and leadoff hitter Dani Flores (.311). But Flores’ status is in question because of a possible rotator cuff problem.
“It’s frustrating because I’m a returner and I really want to contribute,” Flores said. “I think we can do well this year. We’re really close as a team, and that’s a big part of it.”
Quiroz said McClasky and junior college transfer Tina Whitt likely will divide time between catcher and designated player. The infield is expected to include junior Adriana Reyes at third, either junior Jessica Nocas or freshman Samantha Connors at short, Jordan or freshman Kristin MacRunnels at second and either junior Elizabeth Whipkey or redshirt freshman Krystal Echavarria at first.
Flores and freshman Christina Helland have been competing in left, with junior Adina Taul in center and sophomore transfer Tori Picazo in right.
Another would-be outfield returnee, sophomore Stacey Gonzales, will not play this year because of a heart condition.
The Zias have an entirely new pitching staff made up of transfers Rosemary Moreno, Amanda Nightingale, Patricia Gonzales and Natasha Lindsey, all juniors, and freshman Shannon Saltclah. All are righties.
Quiroz, who got a good look at his personnel during a scrimmage on Saturday, said he’s not that concerned about the preseason poll.
“I think we’re in a good position,” he said. “My hope is that by next year, our position will be reversed.”
“Right now I would say our hitters are ahead of our pitchers, but I was encouraged because I think there was only one walk in the scrimmage.”
Quiroz said the Zias should pack more punch in their lineup than a year ago, when they hit just .247 with less than half as many extra base hits as their opponents (49-107).
“We’re a team that’s going to be built on power, and our defense is solid,” he said. “Hopefully our pitchers’ work ethic will carry over into the games.”