New coach, new pitching in the mix as Vikings start a new season in Arizona

by: COURTESY OF LARRY LAWSON - Outfielder Becca Bliss is among a half-dozen returning starters for Portland State, which opens the softball season Friday at Tempe, Ariz.It's a whole new ballgame, in at least couple of ways, for Portland State softball.

Six starters and six other players return, but the team is making two major transitions.

Barb Sherwood has taken over as coach, replacing Tobin Echo-Hawk, who left to become coach at Texas-El Paso.

And pitcher Anna Bertrand has graduated, after winning a PSU-record 76 games and hurling more innings (832 1/3) than anyone in Viking history.

"Anna left us quite the void," Sherwood says. "We understand that we'll have to produce a few more runs this year."

The Vikings have been picked to finish fourth in the second year of Big Sky competition.

PSU's conference season starts March 22 at Erv Lind Stadium against Idaho State in what is game 26 — and the home opener — on the Vikings' schedule. Big Sky coaches recently voted ISU to win the league.

PSU has reached the NCAA playoffs in five of the past eight years, including 2013, when the Viks shared the Big Sky regular-season crown with Idaho State, then went 3-0 in the conference tourney to earn an NCAA berth.

Sherwood, a former catcher at Troy (Ala.) University who grew up in Pensacola, Fla., lacks Big Sky experience but says "I think we're going to be competitive" in the league.

The Vikings open this weekend with five games in the Kajikawa Classic, hosted by Arizona State, at Tempe, Ariz. The first game is 4 p.m. Friday against Colorado State. Also Friday, PSU will take on Indiana at 6:30 p.m. On Saturday, the Vikings will play New Mexico at 11:30 a.m. and Utah at 7 p.m. The getaway game is 11:30 a.m. Sunday versus California.

Expect the Vikings to start different lineups throughout the weekend.

"We want to give everybody a shot and see who fits where," Sherwood says.

And that starts at the top of the batting order, where the candidates to lead off include senior outfielder Becca Bliss (.365 on-base percentage last year).

"But I also like her in the 2-hole," Sherwood says.

Another leadoff prospect, perhaps more for down the road, is freshman Shae Nelson from Southridge High.

"She'll need to get some games under her belt," Sherwood says, "but she runs well and adds a different dimension."

Some of the mainstays figure to be infielders Brittany Hendrickson, Crysta Conn and Alicia Fine and outfielders Becca Bliss and Aubrey Nitschelm.

Hendrickson led the Viks in batting (.350), home runs (9) and RBIs (45) a year ago.

"We look for her to do the same things, maybe even more," Sherwood says.

Hendrickson is a probable starter at first base, although she also can slide over to second, which could open a spot for freshman Alex Flores (ex-Liberty High) at first.

Fine, a junior from Mount Vernon, Wash., and Conn, the senior from Roseburg, are solid defensively at shortstop and third base, respectively. And Conn hit .302, second-best on the club, in 2013.

Becca Bliss, a senior from Sunnyvale, Calif., returns in center field.

Redmond-product Nitschelm, a junior, has "taken over in right and said, 'it's mine,' " Sherwood says.

The candidates in left field include sophomore Lexi Goranson from Auburn, Wash., and sophomore Candice Orozco of Covina, Calif.

At catcher, the coach can choose between sophomore Lauran Bliss, out of South Salem High, and redshirt junior Kayla Norrie, a San Dimas, Calif., native who is coming along nicely after her 2013 Achilles injury.

The pitching prospects are sophomore Karyn Wright, freshman Meagan Hendrix and junior Raya Johnson.

"We haven't established a No. 1, by any means," Sherwood says.

Both Wright and Johnson were 2-7 in 2013, backing up Bertrand. Wright started 11 games and had a 4.67 ERA in 18 appearances, with 93 hits, 20 strikeouts and 25 walks in 63 innings. Johnson posted a 7.74 ERA in 47 innings, giving up 61 hits and 59 walks, with 25 strikeouts. She also started 11 games and appeared in 17.

Bertrand was 21-17 with a 2.69 ERA and fanned 202 batters, with 122 walks and 213 hits allowed in 250 innings.

Johnson is from Aurora, Colo., Wright comes from West Hills, Calif., and Hendrix is the newcomer from Emerald Ridge High in Puyallup, Wash.

"We've got young arms, so we may take some bumps early," Sherwood says. "But I think we got a lot better in the circle in the fall (season)."

Sherwood says defense will be a strong suit and that the Vikings hitters have potential.

"We just have to work on our situational hitting, and hit behind runners and with runners on base," she says.

Sherwood also wants the Vikings to be aggressive on the base paths.

"We're going to be pushing for runs," she says.

Sherwood comes to Portland State from Virginia Tech, where she spent six seasons and served as pitching coach and recruiting coordinator. She graduated from Troy in 1999, after leading the Trojans to the 1996 NCAA tournament and captaining the team for three seasons.

"I bring a lot of energy to the field," she says. "I'm excited to be there every day, and I think the players feel that. I'm a pretty positive person in general."

So, Sherwood says one of her goals is to give the players a "positive outlook, and pick them up mentally, because you don't feel amazing out there every day."

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