Iowa softball's Zoeller looks past third


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Walk-on third baseman Michelle Zoeller opened eyes last season when she started diving to stop infield hits and firing them to first to beat runners. The then-freshman racked up 37 putouts and 65 assists last season. Her fielding prowess, in conjunction with her .218 batting average and exceptional speed on the base path, enabled her to start in all but seven games last year.

But everyone is replaceable, Zoeller said.

Zoeller only started the first two games of her sophomore year, both on Feb. 10. She went 1-for-3 in the two games with 2 walks and tallied 4 assists. Zoeller is batting .200 in 13 plate appearances.

Current starting third baseman Melanie Gladden has started every game except the two Zoeller claimed. She's hitting .169 in 78 appearances.

Head coach Marla Looper said which player starts at third is a "day-to-day" decision, even though Zoeller has only seen the position in three games this season.

"We've got to look at the overall package and look at who's going to be the best choice to put our best nine players on the field," Looper said. "There's some days that Michelle looks better than Melanie, and there's some days that Melanie looks better than Michelle."

Fielding coach Adrianna Baggetta said Gladden and Zoeller's defensive skills aren't drastically different, but Gladden has a "smoother defensive movement."

Zoeller has the team's worst fielding percentage after 3 errors dropped it to .571.

"As far as confidence goes, Michelle isn't as sure of herself as she was last year, which probably doesn't help her," Baggetta said. "[Gladden is] just playing a little big stronger and a little bit more confident, whereas now Michelle is questioning herself."

The sophomore said she wishes she would play more but isn't bitter about losing her starting spot to a freshman.

"Everyone wants to play, but [Gladden] has definitely earned it — in practice and games, she earned the spot," Zoeller said. "I think it would be a lot harder for me if the person playing third wasn't somebody I respected."

Zoeller has found herself in the lineup here and there, and she is 1-for-4 as a pinch-hitter. She scored twice and has one RBI.

The Mequon, Wis., native stepped in as a pinch-hitter against Illinois hurler Pepper Gay on March 31 and loaded the bases by drawing a walk. Zoeller then sped around the bases on a Johnnie Dowling hit and scored on a throwing error, contributing to the Hawkeyes' 5-run rally that ended up winning the game.

Looper praised Zoeller for her patience in the batter's box during that at-bat. She said that a year ago, Zoeller was inexperienced and would have swung at every pitch, but this season, she has matured enough to draw the ever-important walk to load the bases.

"It's challenging to come in and get that one chance to hit, because you want to badly to do well," Looper said. "Michelle — when she has had those opportunities to pinch hit — has done really well. Her speed on the base paths is helpful. It's really nice to have some tools in the dugout that aren't on the field."

Looper said she's trying to integrate Zoeller into a different fielding role that will allow her to be able to use her base-running skills more effectively. But it's still going to be a game-by-game basis for who gets to start at third until Zoeller can find the right position.

"We like our infielders and outfielders to know more than one spot because they become better options for the lineup," Looper said. "If you've got a kid who can only do one thing … and it's not their day, they've got to sit back and wait in the wings."

Follow DI softball reporter Molly Irene Olmstead on Twitter.

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