Seven starters back for Bluffton softball squad in 2003By Tim Stried
February 27, 2003
Fifth year head coach Ty Cook returns seven starters from last season's Bluffton College softball squad, which finished third in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference regular season standings, and hopes are high that that experience will take the Beavers to even greater heights in 2003.
"All of our positions except one outfielder will have veterans returning," said Cook, who ranks second on the Bluffton all-time wins list with 72 victories in just four seasons for a school-record average of 18 wins per season. "We're 2-deep at every position-that's a great feeling to have. The people who are second in line will push the starters. We'll be solid and deep and our hitting has come a long way from last year. We really don't have any weaknesses."
After collecting win totals of 19, 20 and 20 in 1999, 2000 and 2001, Bluffton lined up with seven new starters in the field last year and that inexperience caused BC to get off to a bit of a slow start. The Beavers earned just three wins in their first 17 games, but the second half of the season was a different story as Bluffton went 9-7 to end the regular season and carried the number two seed into the HCAC tournament. Last season Bluffton finished 9-4-1 in the conference and 13-22-1 overall in a season highlighted by an 8-2 record at home and a six-game HCAC winning streak.
"I've asked for more intensity in practice and I have gotten that," said Cook. "This team has a lot of desire and heart. We've been second in the conference for too many years. Our goal is to be the number one seed in the conference tournament and then win the conference tournament. That's what we expect."
Among the seven returning starters is a pair of players with All-HCAC honors on their resume. Junior leftfielder Amber Fitzwater earned first team honors last season after batting .357 in HCAC games and compiling a .400 on-base percentage. She fashioned an 11-game hitting streak during the season and led the team in runs scored (19) and doubles (5). Junior catcher Amanda Payne is also back after earning All-HCAC honors as a freshman when she batted .375 against HCAC pitching.
Payne shared the catching duties last season with now-sophomore Michelle Pleiman, who batted .286 in league games despite missing several games with an injury. Sophomore Lane Leedy will also see action behind the plate, while freshman Michelle Metzger will add depth at both catcher and pitcher.
Around the infield, returning starters include sophomore Mandy Snider at shortstop, senior Melissa Alexander at second base and seniors Stephanie Rush and Melissa Neal at first base. Rush led the squad last season in doubles (8) and RBI (17) and her .296 batting average is tops among all returners. Neal, whose .275 average last season is second only to Rush's among returners, will also see time at designated hitter. Sophomore Jackie Wells will likely step into the third base spot where she saw action as a backup last year.
Adding depth to the infield is sophomore Becky Heller and freshmen Michelle DeVault, Kate Barringer and Lindsay Miller.
Joining Fitzwater in the outfield is sophomore centerfielder Allison Lange, who was the only player to start all 36 games for Bluffton last spring. She had seven multi-hit games, which was second only to Rush's total of nine, on her way to batting .240 with nine RBI and 14 runs, which ranked second on the team. Bluffton's rightfielder last season, Paul Fry, is expected to miss the first half of the season with a knee injury suffered during the basketball campaign. She started in 27 games last spring and batted .239.
Although Cook sees no weaknesses in this year's squad, there is a position without much experience-that being the pitching staff.
Gone is two-time All-HCAC selection Emily Kurtz, who graduated in May with nearly every Bluffton career pitching record. Also not returning to the field are pitchers Stacy Herr, who will serve as a student-assistant coach, and Janeen Arps. Cook will hand the ball to a pitching staff that although is inexperienced, is talented.
"Our pitchers will still be one of the strengths of this team," said Cook. "Sarah Betz has a lot of pitches and she has great movement on those pitches. Jenny Lehman has the opportunity to take a lot of innings this spring, and Jessica Rosengarten will be out there too. We will still be dependent on our pitchers this season. The ball starts with them, but we have so much experience behind them."
Bluffton will begin its season next week at the Rebel Spring Games in Kissimmee, Florida, and Cook has her team's attention focused in the right direction.
"We have talked more about being mentally strong this year. We've set a lot of goals, the first of which is to improve every day. If we do that, the wins will take care of themselves and we'll peak at tournament time."