Coming off first NCAA tourney berth since 2008, NYIT softball set to open practice for upcoming season

Freshman Lizul Portugal takes over at shortstop for the Bears this season.
Freshman Lizul Portugal takes over at shortstop for the Bears this season.

OLD WESTBURY, N.Y. — The NYIT softball team last season earned its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2008. Now, the Bears have a new look as they are set to begin official regular-season practices on Tuesday.

Exactly half of the team are newcomers, with five freshmen and four junior-college transfers.

That group will be looking to offset the graduations of major contributors for NYIT, including right-hander Laura McLaughlin, shortstop Tiffany McCracken and catcher Madison Smith.

The Bears open their season at Bowie State on March 3.

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"I expect the same type of effort we received from the team in the fall," coach Steve Christianson said. "They've all been recruited to come here for a reason. They're all quality student-athletes. They will step up and carry the torch."

McLaughlin logged 174 2/3 innings last season, which included a 42 2/3-inning scoreless streak. She also led the East Coast Conference with a gaudy 1.48 ERA and posted seven shutouts and 22 complete games. McCracken started all 45 games and led the team in batting average (.355), RBIs (31), on-base percentage (.397) and slugging percentage (.638). Meanwhile, Smith had a career slash line of .357/.408/.514.

On the mound, senior right-handers Ashley Russo and Sofia Evangelista aim to minimize the impact of McLaughlin's graduation. Russo went 6-5 with six complete games and a 3.36 ERA in 19 appearances (16 starts) last season for the Bears. Meanwhile, Evangelista looked solid during fall scrimmages while primarily facing Division I competition. She posted a 3.00 ERA and two complete games in 35 innings spanning 10 appearances (four starts) as a junior.

"I like their experience," Christianson said. "They've been around, especially Sofia. This is her fourth year here, and every year she's progressed. She had a phenomenal fall. And Ashley, having a year under her belt following junior college, she has a better understanding of what the expectations are."

Christianson also has imported a left-hander to complement that duo. Sophia Medina arrives from Sierra College in Northern California, where she went 7-1 with a 4.62 ERA in 18 appearances (four starts) spanning 50 innings as a sophomore in 2017.

More mound help is on the way for 2019 too, with MacArthur High School's Jessica Budrewicz and Longwood High School's Emily Koerick having signed letters of intent in October. Budrewicz, who will be joined by her twin sister and batterymate Ashley on NYIT's squad, is the reigning Nassau County Pitcher of the Year. Koerick led Suffolk County in strikeouts last season as a junior.

But that's for next year.

As far as this season, Christianson also is high on his new shortstop, freshman Lizul Portugal. She hit .814 with 55 RBIs as a senior in 2017 at the High School for Construction en route to being named Player of the Year in Queens by the TimesLedger newspaper.

"She's a very special player," Christianson said. "I'm excited to see her over the next four years at NYIT. She's a gifted athlete. She has the potential to be a five-tool player."

NYIT also has some big bats returning. That includes first baseman Brooke Scherer, who hit .304 with seven doubles, five homers and 18 RBIs while starting all 45 games as a freshman in 2017. Also, slugger Christine Olivas enters her senior season this spring.

Freshmen Tori Fox and Kylie Lacerte will compete for the No. 1 catcher role, while Stephanie Neglia and Mikea Lewis will do the same at second base.

Senior Jessica Daniel will anchor the outfield in center, but playing time at the corner spots is up for grabs between Christine Rizzacasa, Samantha Melenedez, Leandra Lopez, Mary Tom and Kierstin Bloom

With the added outfield depth, Ruth Rodriguez moves back to third base, where she will vie for playing time Sydney Kratzert.