Q&A with UNC softball coach Donna Papa ahead of Friday's season opener
On Friday, the North Carolina softball team will open its season at the Texas Classic in Austin, Tex., where UNC will play five games in three days.
The Tar Heels closed out the 2015 season with a 37-16 overall record and a 16-5 ACC record, placing them second in the conference.
Staff writer Nicole Caporaso spoke with Coach Donna Papa about the team’s new faces, competition for starting positions and the most exciting games of the impending season.
The Daily Tar Heel: What can fans of the team expect this season?
Donna Papa: I think it’s going to be an exciting team. Last year we had a pretty big offense in that we broke a lot of records here and hit something like 92 home runs. But I think we have a team this year where we’re still going to hit home runs, but we’ve got speed. So I think there’s a good versatility on our team with speed and power.
Defensively, coming back, we have the majority of our starters back. I think we’ll be an exciting offensive team. We have a lot of games out here, so we hope the fans will come out and support us.
DTH: Do you have any big games you’re specifically looking forward to this season?
DP: You don’t like to make any one game bigger than another game. We always try to tell them we’re just playing the shirts across the way. But certainly, last year we didn’t get to play Florida State and that’s become kind of a big rival for us in conference. They’ve done well, and they’ve gone to the World Series, and so within our conference I would say Florida State for sure. Last year we had some great games against Georgia. But you know, I don’t like to say any game is bigger than another game. The game stays the same, you go from home to first and it’s 60 feet and you go from first to second and it’s 60 feet.
DTH: Your team added five first-year players to the roster this year. What do you expect from them in regards to playing time and competing for starting positions?
DP: Two of them are out in the outfield, Destiny DeBerry and Kiana Sherlund. They both have good quickness — probably Destiny edges out Kiana by a little bit — but they’re both very versatile at the plate. Katie Bailiff is the freshman catcher, and we have two catchers. So I think Katie will see some significant time with Jillian Ferraro, she’s a junior.
On the infield, Leah Murray, we graduated Jenna Kelly at first base, so we have a senior, Lauren Fuller, and Leah Murray will be vying in that position to be out on the field. And then Berlynne Delamora is another freshman. She’s a third baseman, a strong hitter and probably one of the hardest workers on our team.
So I think at different points in time in the season some of them will be out there on a pretty regular basis and the others will be working their way into the lineup. They’re definitely exciting players with power and speed and some different looks for us. We’re probably going to pitch a lot by committee, meaning somebody will start, we’ll bring somebody in for the middle and then close with somebody. I think that’s kind of how we will operate throughout the season.
DTH: What have you been focusing on with the players ahead of the season?
DP: From an offensive standpoint, we’ve recently just really wanted the girls to get comfortable and confident and working on areas that they feel will make them better. So we’ll do certain drills, but a lot of the stuff we concentrate on is really working hard to expand our legs, hit the ball hard up the middle or in the gaps. We work a lot gap to gap, from left center to right center, that area. Defensively, just really communicating.
Those are all the things we’ve been talking about: details, focus and celebrate little things and also be able to recover from any failures. In softball, you’re going to fail. If you’re a .300 hitter, you fail seven out of 10 times. So there’s going to be a lot of failure, and you have to figure out how to deal with failure and recover from it quickly because if you stay in that mode it just builds on that and we want to be able to be in the moment.”
DTH: Kristen Brown, your senior shortstop, led your team this past year in home runs, RBIs, slugging percentage and runs. She broke UNC single-season records and was named first-team All-ACC. How important is Kristen Brown to the team this year when it comes to offense, as well as leading the new players?
DP: Kristen has established herself as a leader for our team. Out on the field she’s constantly talking about the plays and keeping them up. She’s extremely talented; she’s a very, very special player. One of the best that we’ve had come through here in my 31 years. The thing that’s exciting about Kristen and what’s great about her is she’s extremely coachable, as talented as she is. She’s a big part of our offense and she’s somebody we count on to drive in runs.
DTH: What will be the team’s biggest challenge this weekend in the tournament?
DP: Every team that’s there is good. I think being able to execute and not getting caught up in the first game jitters, and things like that. Just playing the game and keeping things simple, I think that’s the biggest challenge always. All of our players are going to be a little nervous. They’ve been playing against each other since August, so it’ll be great to see a new team across the way. We just can’t get caught up in things that don’t matter, and if we stay focused on ourselves and doing what we need to do, then I think we’ll be OK. It’s opening weekend and everybody’s excited and you don’t want to get too high or too low based on what you do in the first game, that’s always the big part.
DTH: The team plays 15 games in the remainder of February. How do you plan on managing your players this weekend in order to keep them as fresh as possible with a packed schedule early on?
DP: It’s hard, our schedule isn’t really conducive to that because we play night games and then on Sunday we play the early game after playing a night game. It’s going to be a challenge for sure. We’re in season, but we’re also still in school and some have exams, work and things like that. It’s kind of a crazy time. Ideally we’d love to open up at home, but I’m very thankful we’re not opening up at home this weekend, we’re going to 75-degree weather and here it’s going to be in the 30s, so that’s going to be really fun.
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