COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Ohio State softball teams opens the 2009 season at 11:30 a.m. Friday against Cleveland State at the Hotel Encanto Invitational in Las Cruces, N.M.
The Buckeyes are starting the 2009 season anew in more ways than one. The most obvious is the new $5.9-million Buckeye Field set to open in time for Ohio State’s opener Mar. 21 against Michigan State. The 1,500-seat facility features indoor and outdoor batting cages, a three-plate bullpen, a 650-square foot press box, player clubhouse and locker room, new dugouts, coaches and umpires dressing room and concession areas.
There are also three new faces and several others starting fresh after coming back from injury. Their presence is expected to add a spark to the Buckeye lineup and the seven returning field starters and two pitchers.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the new start is the rejuvenated spirit among players and coaches alike.
“We certainly were not happy with the end result last year, especially with starting out with the second-best record in program history,” head coach Linda Kalafatis said. “There were some factors that no doubt led to that, but I think that we are in a very good place to make substantial improvements this year. Not only in the end result, but our consistency and play throughout.”
Inside the Roster
Nine current players saw action during the 2007 season and the Buckeyes’ run for the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles. A couple years older and wiser, this veteran core is expected to lead Ohio State in its quest to return to the top of the conference and region.
Junior All-American Sam Marder headlines the list of returnees, along with senior pitcher Kim Reeder and junior infielder Whitney Cooper. The Buckeyes also welcome back 2007 first-team All-Big Ten first baseman Courtney Pruner and pitcher Lindsay Bodeker, who both spent last season recovering from injury. Junior Megan Miller rounds out the veteran pitching staff.
Reeder, Cooper, Marder and Pruner are all co-captains for the upcoming season, a group Kalafatis is certain can guide the team to success.
“I am confident in the leadership abilities of the four players chosen as captains for this season,” Kalafatis said. “Each one of them brings something different to the team and I think their cumulative efforts have the potential to lead the team to success on and off the field.”
Returning letterwinners ready to make immediate impact are: Cortney Cannon, Kady Caughenbaugh, Brittany Goodchild, Tory Haddad, Dee Dee Hillman, Leah Ledford, Karisa Medrano, Megan Miller, Rebecca Schultz and Rachael Shepherd. In addition, freshman Alicia Herron is expected to start at shortstop, while fellow rookies Vanessa Spears (outfield) and Katie Simonton (utility) will both challenge for time in the lineup.
The Coaching Staff
Kalafatis, who is Ohio State’s all-time wins leader, will be joined by fourth-year assistant Ali Viola and third-year assistant Eric Beach. Viola, who was an All-American shortstop at Nebraska, coaches the infield and hitting, while Beach, who was an All-American pitcher at Arizona State, works primarily with the pitchers.
Brittany Vanderink, a 2008-All American and Buckeye from 2005-08, joins the staff as a student assistant coach, while Tom Palumbo returns for this fourth season as the team’s strength and conditioning coach.
Pitchers and Catchers
Led by Reeder and Marder, the pitching and catching battery is the most veteran group on the team. After three seasons, Reeder is fourth in the career record books in both wins (51) and strikeouts (491), while Marder, a junior, already ranks second all-time at Ohio State in walks (104) and fifth in RBI (103). She also led the Big Ten in runners thrown out stealing (21) and lowest success rate against her (52 percent).
Bodeker, who transferred from Akron prior to 2008, is described as a work in progress, but is expected to make an immediate impact in her first full season with the Buckeyes. She made 12 appearances a year ago, going 6-2 with a 1.23 ERA before injuring her knee March 29 and sitting out the remainder of the season. Miller has improved steadily in the offseason after moving into the No. 2 spot in 2008 and making 24 appearances on the mound.
Splitting time with Marder behind the plate will be Caughenbaugh and Shepherd, who spent the bulk of 2008 playing third base.
“I think that they are a hard-working group,” Kalafatis said. “They are on a mission and they know the significance of their role within the team. We certainly count on them being as consistent and impactful as they can every game.”
Around the Infield
All-American second baseman Brittany Vanderink may be gone, but the infield retains its strength on the corners with Shepherd at third and the return of Pruner at first base, along with Haddad, who played 51 games on first last season in Pruner’s absence.
“I could not be more pleased with the way Tory [Haddad] came in last season having never really played first base,” Kalafatis said. “She did a great job learning the position and wanting to improve. With Pruner back in action this season, those two will make strong combination at first.”
Haddad started in all but one game at first or DP, batting .250 on the season and .226 with a team-leading 13 RBI in Big Ten games. On the other side, Shepherd is one of four players to start all 56 games last season, making 50 appearances in the hot corner where she went 25-consecutive games without committing an error.
The addition of Herron at shortstop allowed Cooper to make the move to second, where she has transitioned quickly and continues to improve. Last season, Cooper started all 56 at short, leading the team in assists (116), while finishing second on team in doubles (6) and game-winning RBI (6).
Herron, too, has adjusted to her new role at the college level.
“Alicia has been able to make the transition very quickly to playing shortstop at this level,” Kalafatis said. “She has a good arm, great glove and covers a lot of ground. The way that she has excelled at this key position as a freshman is very admirable.”
Schultz adds consistency and depth at both second and third base, after seeing time at both during the 2008 season.
Roaming the Outfield
If there is any area that remains a question mark for the 2009 Buckeyes, it is the outfield. The lineup will depend on who is able to continually produce, as Kalafatis repeatedly reminds her team: “offense gets you in, defense keeps you in.”
“We have a lot of good choices and we may see all these players as starters at one point or another during the season,” Kalafatis said.
Goodchild is the most experienced of five returning players with outfield experience. She played in 54 games last season, starting 51, and led the team in fielding percentage without making an error on the season.
“Brittany has one of the better arms on the team and picks up the ball off the ground better than anyone,” Kalafatis said. “ She is definitely at her best when she is playing at her hardest. Brittany, along with Dee Dee Hillman and Karisa Medrano are true triple threat players with the ability bunt, slap and hit away.”
Hillman, a third-team All-Big Ten honoree, covers a lot of ground in the outfield and may play left or centerfield. At the plate, she is projected to be the leadoff hitter after hitting .288 last season and tying the freshman record for hits in a game (4) against Illinois.
Medrano and Ledford had strong performances through the fall season and winter practices and are expected to compete for playing time. Medrano, a converted shortstop, batted .226 last season as a designated hitter and finished third on the team in walks (20), while Ledford hit .314 with a .429 slugging percentage in 28 games.
Cannon saw action in 10 games last season, but has what Kalafatis describes as the strongest arm on the team. She is expected to work her way into the mix in her final season and be a leader in the outfield, even if she is not on the playing field.
Pruner could also see time in the outfield to break up time at first base.
Freshmen Spears and Simonton could also see time in the outfield after taking time to adjust to the college game. Spears is coming back from offseason shoulder surgery, but has a bright future once she is fully recovered. Simonton, a native of Dublin, Ohio,
“Katie adds a spark to whatever she does,” Kalafatis said. “She has exceptional speed and practices very hard I have been so impressed with intensity and toughness. She will see time in the outfield once she learns the finer points of the positions.”
The highlight of the 2009 schedule is the April 11 contest vs. Illinois that marks the dedication of Buckeye Field. Join director of athletics Gene Smith, alumni softball players and other members of the Buckeye athletics family to commemorate the opening of one of the best softball venues in the country.
Ohio State has 16 scheduled games against teams in the 2008 NCAA Tournament, with the possibility of more during tournament play. Five early season tournaments account for at least 24 games and take the Buckeyes to Las Cruces, N.M. (New Mexico State), Baton Rouge, La. (LSU), Palm Springs, Calif., Columbus, Ga. and Louisville, Ky.
“Our tournament schedule is very strong,” Kalafatis said. “It gives us a great chance to face some of the top teams in the country at two of the most prestigious tournaments in the country the Cathedral City Classic and NFCA Leadoff Classic.
The Buckeyes open the home season March 21 with a weekend series against Michigan State before taking a spring break trip to North Carolina to face North Carolina and N.C. State. They return home for a weekend series against Iowa (March 28-29) and a non-conference doubleheader against Ball State. Road trips to Minnesota and Indiana follow in the opening weeks of April before dedication weekend in Columbus, April 11-12, against Illinois.
The conference schedule continues with road trips to Wisconsin, Northwestern and Michigan and home series vs. Purdue and Penn State. Doubleheader non-conference games vs. Evansville, Oakland and Western Michigan, all at Buckeye Field, also fall during that stretch.
The new format of Big Ten play stretches over eight weeks instead of six and eliminates the conference tournament. The automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament will go to the regular-season champion.