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The Ohio State softball program is looking to return to their winning ways under the direction of head coach Linda Kalafatis, who is in her eighth season at the helm of the Buckeye program. A combination of new talent, experienced leaders, versatility and lights at Buckeye Field for the first time in program history should prove to add up to an exciting softball season in Columbus.

Despite losing five starters (and seven letterwinners) last year in pitcher Katie Chain (67 career wins, 692 strikeouts), catcher Annie Dedic, third baseman Kristine Himes, outfielder Rogeanna Hottinger and second baseman Jenn Link, seven starters (and six additional letterwinners) will wear Scarlet and Gray again this season and five new faces will begin their rookie seasons with the 2004 Buckeye squad.

Last season Ohio State, coming off a record-setting 2002 campaign (55-14, ranked 13th), began the season with a 14-6 record that included three wins over teams ranked in the Top 10 in the country. But the Buckeyes posted a 12-17 ledger thereafter to end the season with a 26-23 overall mark. Ohio State went 5-11 in Big Ten play.

“We were not pleased with the second half of our season (last year) and I think that really has motivated our team,” Kalafatis said. “I think we have some very determined young ladies. The season can’t start soon enough.

“We will have more speed this year and will look to use it to help us score runs and win games. Conditioning and strength training has gone very well. Our kids are in shape and they are working very hard. I like the personality of this team. I like the athleticism of this team and I like the competitiveness of this team. Now can we put all of those things together in every game? That is what we’ll work to do all season long.”

The 2003-04 Buckeyes went undefeated in fall ball over two weekends of tournament play. Once again Ohio State hosted the Ohio Collegiate Charity Classic, which raised nearly $10,000 for breast cancer research. Kalafatis’ squad won the event for the third consecutive year and was a flawless 4-0 at the Wright State Fall Tournament in Dayton, Ohio. Over the two weekends of fall play, the Buckeyes were able to experiment with different lineups, which gave many players – especially the newcomers – valuable experience at various positions.

“I think the fall went fairly well for us,” Kalafatis said. “We really made sure our freshmen got a lot of playing time and adjust to this level because we expect them to play a pretty large role with our team.

“We were able to use the short game a little bit more this past fall, which was a focus in last year’s recruiting class. We brought in three lefties and I think we have a pretty good idea of where some of these young players will fit in for us this year and in the future.”

While Ohio State is fortunate to return seven capable starters, including Billie Jo Carder, Kristi DeVries, Karisa Evans, Jennifer Johnson, Beth McAbier, Breana Pozzi and Meghan Rowlands, the Buckeyes are also going to look for the freshmen to contribute immediately.

“The freshmen make up almost one-third of our squad right now,” Kalafatis said. “So their contributions will most likely be more significant then the last couple of years when we had large senior classes.”

Regardless of what the newest Ohio State softball players provide, Kalafatis is confident in her senior class, which consists of DeVries, McAbier and Pozzi.

“We have three seniors who are all capable of having their best seasons yet,” Kalafatis said. “So far they have provided good leadership for our team and they have the potential to leave as the winningest class in Ohio State softball history, like the two previous senior classes did.”

“We went through the fall short two players,” Kalafatis said. “Karisa, who is our returning leading hitter, was out, so there are still some question marks as far as how the batting order may set up. And (freshman pitcher) Nicole Gragson was also out during the fall.”

PITCHERS
With a returning leader in DeVries and the addition of four underclassmen, the Buckeye pitching staff will use depth to their advantage this year.

The pitching mound will have one of the Buckeyes’ leaders and all-time best pitchers this year in DeVries, who ranks second in career wins (44) and strikeouts (426) at Ohio State. The coaching staff will rely heavily on the solid and consistent play of DeVries.

“We are hoping Krit (DeVries) has her best year ever,” Kalafatis said. “She was very good last year. Her ability to work the corners and change speeds gives our team a chance to win each time she is on the mound. I am hoping Krit will be a good mentor for our younger pitching staff, which consists of two sophomores and two freshmen.”

Kalafatis is unsure how the pitching duties will be distributed, but she is confident in the leadership of DeVries and the rising ability of sophomores Chelsea Baker and Andrea Tribuzi and freshmen Nicole Gragson and Jamee Juarez.

“Krit (DeVries) and Jamie (Juarez) have stood out to maybe be a one-two punch for us, but we will be able to show different looks if we want or need to.”

“We played without Nicole this fall, so we were short one pitcher on the mound,” Kalafatis said. “As she comes back, we will talk more about the full strength of our pitching staff. We saw really good things from Jamee. We’re seeing some improvements in Chelsea and Andrea as they continue to get better so that they can help the team from the circle. Most of all what we saw is a lot of versatility.”

Baker was 2-2 last year and pitched 39.0 total innings. She racked up 34 strikeouts, played in 17 total games and scored three runs last year.

“I am pleased with what I see out of Chelsea so far this year,” Kalafatis said. “What I probably like best about Chelsea is she is one of our most competitive players. She looks faster and stronger to me this year. She is finishing amongst the head of the pack in conditioning. She played a good outfield for us in the fall and she is going to get more playing time in the outfield and on the mound for us this season. I think she did a nice job coming through in the clutch for us.”

Kalafatis is looking for consistent improvement from Tribuzi, who threw in one game and tallied one win and 10 strikeouts last season. She participated in nine total games and earned one hit.

“Andrea’s biggest challenge is consistency,” Kalafatis said. “If she can continue to become more consistent and hit her locations, I think she will see the result of that in her playing time. She throws the ball pretty hard and she is getting stronger and I think she has blended very well with the team.”

Juarez was the only rookie pitcher to see playing time this fall as Gragson sat out with an injury. Juarez showed tremendous maturity in her first games as a Buckeye and will most likely see herself in the lineup throughout the year.

“Jamee had a nice fall,” Kalafatis said. “We need to work on some pitches with Jamee and we need to work on some off-speed stuff, but we were pleased with her composure, her ability to hit her spots and her velocity.”

“Jamee reminds me so much of Kristi when Kristi first came to us in the sense that she seems like she is in total control out there on the mound. She is not intimidated and in fact, she seems intimidating. She hits and she plays third base for us, too. She just reminds me a lot of Krit and if she can mirror that career than she will be a great asset to our team.”

The OSU coaching staff will be anxiously awaiting the return of Gragson this spring.

“We hope to see Nicole (Gragson) at full strength this season,” Kalafatis said. “She is recovering from fall surgery and we hope she will be able to perform pain free We are anxious to see what the future holds for Nicole. With her size and strength coupled with (OSU pitching coach) Belinda’s tutoring, Nicole can have a great career here.”

INFIELD
The infield is perhaps where the most experience and the most versatility lies on the Buckeye squad. Returnees include DeVries, who doubles as a pitcher and first base player, McAbier, who led the team with 211 putouts last year at first base, Carder and Johnson, who shared time at shortstop last season, and Pozzi, who split time between third base and shortstop.

First base will be a shared responsibility between veterans DeVries and McAbier and junior Ashley Cutcliff, who will be in her second year at Ohio State and nailed five homeruns last year. DeVries was a starter in all 45 games she participated in last season. She tallied 31 hits, 15 RBI, 105 putouts and 55 assists. McAbier competed in 32 games (28 starts) last year and owned a .969 fielding percentage in addition to a total of 12 hits, six runs and seven RBI.

“There are no changes at first base from last year,” Kalafatis said. “We will have Kristi, Beth and Ashley. I think Beth has turned into a pretty solid defensive first baseman. Ashley’s strength is her power. I think Ashley can be a feared hitter in the Big Ten and she is working to get there.”

Johnson may play shortstop and to second base this year. She started in 28 games and played 35 total contests with eight runs, 11 hits, a .928 fielding percentage, 43 putouts and 34 assists.

“JJ (Johnson) spent most of the fall at second base,” Kalafatis said. “We have shifted her over to second (from shortstop) and played her more there in the fall because that was the position of the two she is least comfortable with. We wanted her to get that experience if she is going to be our starter there.”

After a solid fall, freshman Nycole Koyano might also see playing time at second.

“CoCo played remarkably well (last fall),” Kalafatis said. “I think both JJ and CoCo are very solid defensive players. I think offensively they bring us different things and it could just come down to what we want – the quick lefty slapper in CoCo or JJ, who supplies a little more pop.”

Juarez, a rookie, and Pozzi, a veteran, will most likely split time at third base. Pozzi had six hits, five runs, six RBI and 24 assists, as well as 17 putouts last season.

“It looks as though we have Jamee and Bre (Pozzi) sharing time,” Kalafatis said. “Both of them played exceptionally well at third. Bre is still learning the position because she played shortstop her entire career and Jamee is one of those players you could put anywhere and she would still excell. We are seeing a lot of good leadership qualities from Bre and I like that.”

Juarez and Pozzi will have their work cut out for them as they look to replace Kristine Himes, a senior on last year’s squad, who started in all 49 games and carried a .286 average. In addition to 40 hits, 18 runs and 34 RBI, Himes also tallied 92 assists and 44 putouts.

“Kristine (Himes) will be hard to replace, but I think these two players (Juarez and Pozzi) will do a very good job,” Kalafatis commented.

Another piece of the infield puzzle might be Evans, who played outfield last season for Ohio State.

“Karisa (Evans) came to us as a third baseman,” Kalafatis said. “We knew when she returned (after shoulder surgery), the outfield throw was the one that took the most toll on her arm. So we figure that she could be in the mix in the infield, too. Although I anticipate her going back in the outfield.”

Carder was the squad’s shortstop in the fall, with Johnson also seeing time. Carder, who started in 20-of-29 games last year, tallied 16 hits, 11 runs and four RBI. She stole all four bases she attempted and had 16 putouts and 30 assists.

“BJ (Carder) is an excellent athlete and got some good playing experience last year and in the fall,” Kalafatis said. “Nobody on the team works harder than BJ does, and defensively she can really be an impact player for us.”

CATCHERS
The Buckeyes lost catcher Annie Dedic, who was second on the team with 200 putouts last year, but two other players who saw time last season return behind the plate. Both solid players, junior Natalie Hales and sophomore Stacy Hibma played in 16 and 28 games, respectively, last year. Hales carried a .267 average and Hibma hit .230.

“Behind the plate is an interesting position for us because we have Hales, a junior, Hibma, a sophomore, and Christina Douglas, a freshman,” Kalafatis said. “Hales and Hibma were both first-year players for us last year and now they come back as veterans. They both hit really well in the fall.”

Regardless of who is playing catcher for the Buckeyes, the player will be asked to take on more responsibility for Kalafatis’ team.

“We are asking our catchers to take control a little bit more back there,” Kalafatis said. “But I see growth in both players (Hales and Hibma). Plain and simple, we need to have a catcher back there who will make our pitchers throw better and throw runners out.”

Douglas might see playing time behind the plate, as well.

“Douglas may not have gotten as much catching time (in the fall) as she got outfield time,” Kalafatis said. “Christina is a different lefty from the others we have had. She has good strength and hopefully she can transfer that into her bat. She needs to learn our pitching staff and adjust. We are excited to see how she develops for us. We have even talked to her about playing first base in the future.”

OUTFIELD
“We have a lot of returning players in the outfield,” Kalafatis said. “We lost Hottinger from last year and I still think she was one of the best outfielders we have had here, defensively.

“We’ve played around with some different combinations and without having Karisa Evans out there in the fall, we were not at full strength, so I think it is going to come down to who is producing offensively as to who will be there defensively.”

Baker, a sophomore who will split time between the pitching mound and the outfield, and Megan Schwab, a freshman, will likely compete for time in leftfield.

“Megan had a good fall and she is a versatile left-handed hitter,” Kalafatis said. “She is a true triple-threat. She can bunt, slap or hit-away and I think she is equally capable at all three, which is what makes her so difficult to defend. We were really pleased with her quickness and her footwork.”

Rowlands, who played leftfield last season and is known for her ability to make plays defensively, will shift to replace Hottinger in centerfield.

“We are giving Rowlands the first opportunity to take over the centerfield position,” Kalafatis said. “To do that, she is going to have to play aggressive and fearless. That is something that Meghan is working on and will have to continue to work on. We like how she was able to get on base in the fall a lot of different ways. She is going to have to do that to be in our everyday lineup.”

Baker and Evans are also possibilities in the centerfield position, however Evans is most likely to return to right field, the position she played last year. Evans led the Buckeyes with a .345 clip and started in all 49 games. She tallied 32 runs, 49 hits and 17 RBI, while recording a .949 fielding percentage.

“Karisa did a great job in her first year as a starter,” Kalafatis said. “She led the team in hitting and has really become a success story. She is just a tough competitor and doesn’t let much affect her emotionally, which allows her to produce day in and day out instead of fluctuating. Karisa is one of those players that can play a lot of different spots. Her bat will be somewhere in the top of our lineup and we’re counting on her to be very productive, whether that is getting on base or driving runners in.

“We have also put Nicole Lancaster in all three outfield spots,” Kalafatis said. “We have turned her back around to the right side of the plate and she is hitting the ball better. Nicole has transitioned well to the outfield, but like others, she must be productive and show consistency to break into the lineup.”

Lancaster played in 38 games and tallied three starts. She stole four-of-five bases on the season.

Other pieces of the outfield puzzle could be Douglas and Koyano.

COMPETITION
The Buckeyes open the season with two tough tournaments that include at least eight 2003 NCAA Tournament participants. In the Arizona State Fiesta Bowl Tournament all five teams – Arizona State, Cal State Northridge, Massachusetts, Oregon and Texas – were NCAA qualifiers last year. In the NFCA Leadoff Classic in Columbus, Ga., Kalafatis’ squad will take on California, Florida Atlantic and LSU.

“We open the gates very strong with our first two tournaments,” Kalafatis said. “In the Fiesta Bowl Tournament all five teams were NCAA participants last season and Texas finished third in the World Series.

“In the NFCA Leadoff Classic, we start out playing three teams that went to the NCAA tournament. Cal finished runner up in the country and won the World Series the year before.”

The Buckeyes then take a short trip to Dayton to participate in the Flyer Invitational, which will include Dayton, IUPUI and 2003 NCAA Tournament participant Wright State. The fourth tournament of the year will be the Winthrop Invitational in Rock Hill, S.C. Teams on Ohio State’s schedule are Furman, North Carolina A&T, North Carolina State and Winthrop.

Ohio State hosts the fifth and final tournament of the preseason at Buckeye Field as they play host to the Buckeye Invitational and Northern Illinois, Oakland, Loyola-Chicago and Robert Morris.

The Buckeyes travel west one more time to play at St. Mary’s, Pacific and Fresno State before opening Big Ten play at home April 2 vs. Minnesota. The Big Ten boasted seven NCAA participants last year.

“We will have to be prepared early in our season, that is for sure. I like the schedule. It has a lot of diversity. We are heading west to Arizona and south to the NFCA Leadoff Classic to face some of the top teams from across the country and then next door to Dayton. We then go east to the Winthrop tournament to face some east coast schools and then we have our tournament before going back out to California to face St. Mary’s, a very good Pacific team and perennial power Fresno State before we hit Big Tens. So we are going to be facing teams from literally every corner of the country.”

“I think each year the Big Ten has gotten better,” Kalafatis said. “It is perhaps the most balanced it has ever been. Some programs have lost career-record holding pitchers, like Wisconsin and Michigan, but I think there are a lot of very good returning players and we certainly face a challenge at the end of our season because we are away so much. But we have traditionally been a team that plays pretty decent on the road and we have added more non-conference games this year than what we had last year. Part of that thinking was because of our youth and versatility. It will give us opportunities to play different lineups and defensive combinations.

“This team is very motivated to get into postseason play,” Kalafatis said. “They’ll have plenty of games to earn that right. It is our intent to be playing late in May.”