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The Daily Tar Heel

Preview: UNC softball aims for strong year after two losing seasons

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The blue scrimmage team celebrates graduate Sara Jubas (14) on her home run by throwing her into the air. UNC Softball scrimmaged at G. Anderson Stadium on Monday, Jan. 31, 2022

The North Carolina softball team heads into the 2022 season with new and familiar faces as the team hopes to make a run in the NCAA Division I Softball Tournament.

In 2019, the team reached the regional round, losing to Tennessee. As the new season approaches, longtime head coach Donna J. Papa and her players have shown renewed optimism for the future of the Tar Heels. 

“I really look forward to actually being there,” first-year Shelby Sykora said. “I’ve always grown up watching college softball on TV and going to a couple of games, and just being in the atmosphere of the team, whether I’m playing or not, will just be amazing.” 

The 2022 roster has eight first-years, the most the team has had since the 2018 season, when it had seven. Although they have yet to experience game action, they hope to reinvigorate the North Carolina softball program with their talent.

This season’s roster also has five seniors. Senior first baseman Kiersten Licea, who played in 38 games last season, praised the versatility of the roster.

“I think we have great depth overall,” Licea said. “I feel like I’m very excited to see what everyone has in store for them, especially if after one person gets hurt, we have so much depth in the lineup that we don’t have to worry about injury and be like 'oh, she’s down.'”

Licea’s confidence shows that the team is prepared to face any adversity that comes its way. Papa echoed that sentiment, displaying confidence in her players in that category.

“We’ve worked on failure recovery,” Papa said. “I really just feel like, for our team, you can’t really get too high or too low about anything.” 

The Tar Heels are going to have to be able to handle adversity if they hope to go up against some of the best teams in the country and come out with wins. The team will be playing against the likes of the Georgia Bulldogs, the Michigan Wolverines and the Oregon Ducks, all of which were ranked in the 2021 season. 

These teams racked up a collective win-loss record of 112-48 in the 2021 season. If the Tar Heels are going to win against them, they are going to need to be prepared. Papa is confident that her team is showing shades of its 2019 form.

Over the course of the preseason, she believes the members of the team have bonded and gotten to know each other more, showing the camaraderie needed for a successful team.

"I feel like with this team, there’s a lot of elements in this team that remind me of that team," Papa said. "I feel like they are very together as a team.”

The 2019 Tar Heels softball team finished their season with a win-loss record of 38-20. The season featured several big wins against ranked teams such as Florida State, Georgia, Michigan and South Carolina. 

Since that 2019 season, the Tar Heels have had consecutive losing years in the shortened 2020 season and the following in 2021.

Licea hopes to bring success back to the program this season by improving some aspects of her own game. 

“I think it’s just helping the team out overall and being more of a clutch player,” she said. “Just being there when they need me the most.” 

The close relationships that Licea and her teammates share will be a crucial aspect of their ability to play hard together and earn their victories this season. As the Tar Heels seek to restore the program’s winning culture, they will need each other at every moment.

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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