DePaul Opens Softball Season in Paradise
Feb. 8, 2012
CHICAGO - There's nothing quite like opening a college softball season in Hawai'i.
And even though this has been a kind and mild winter, nothing compares to the 75-degree weather and bright sunshine of the Aloha State.
DePaul commences the 2012 season against UMKC (Missouri-Kansas City) at 7:30 p.m. (Chicago time) Thursday in the Time Warner Cable Paradise Classic in Honolulu. The Blue Demons will face Seattle at 7:30 p.m. Friday followed by a showdown against the host Rainbow Wahine at midnight (Chicago time).
Thus begins a daunting stretch of 28 consecutive games away from Cacciatore Stadium. DePaul plays a total of 42 road games this season---second in the nation to Utah State, Fordham, North Dakota State and Northwestern with 43.
"We're looking good," said DePaul coach Eugene Lenti. "Our infielders and outfielders are primed and ready to go. We have definitely taken advantage of the warmer winter weather. Our players loved it.
"The 10 workouts in Cacciatore Stadium during the middle of winter are the most we've ever had. We were seeing fly balls up against a blue and sunny sky and fielding ground balls off the dirt."
Although the Blue Demons graduated the top of their batting order in All-BIG EAST Conference outfielders Alex Morocco and Sean Plese, there's plenty returning from the 41-15 team that finished No. 24 in the final USA Today/NFCA Top 25 national rankings.
Leading the way are pitchers Kirsten Verdun and Bree Brown. Verdun was the BIG EAST Conference Rookie of the Year and All-BIG EAST First Team after going 22-4 in the circle with a 2.33 earned-run average. The powerful sophomore also led DePaul in home runs with 11, RBIs with 43 and walks with 47. Brown was the 2010 BIG EAST Rookie of the Year and finished 2011 at 7-4 with117 strikeouts in 94.1 innings.
"Our team is going to rely on Bree and Kirsten to lead us from the pitching circle," Lenti said. "Offensively, we'll score runs by hitting a lot and hitting for power more so than past teams. There won't be as much of a short game from a slapper's point of view. Our lefties are hitters first, then slappers.
"We'll score on extra-base hits more than in the past. Before, we'd get a hit, steal second, bunt the runner to third and score on another bunt. This season, we're going to be first-and-third a lot with hits.
"We lost the top two batters in our order from last season, but we have our power hitters back. Size-wise, this is one of our bigger teams. It's also one of our stronger teams."
Along with Verdun, the offense features All-BIG EAST outfielder Samantha Dodd (.322, five home runs, 10 doubles, 32 RBIs), All-BIG EAST second baseman Allie Braden (.298), All-BIG EAST first baseman-outfielder Megan Coronado (.284) and All-BIG EAST Tournament third baseman Lynsey Ciezki (.286, eight doubles, 21 RBIs).
Freshman Paige Peterson from Tucson, Ariz. handled the bat well during the fall exhibition season, and Lenti is hoping for contributions from rookie shortstop Brittany Boesel of Yorba Linda, Calif. and freshman Staci Bonezek, a local recruit from Tinley Park.
"Our hitters are still working on their short game, but we don't possess as much speed as in the past," Lenti said. "Ciezki, Braden and Dodd are lefties who can go back to the short game if necessary. All of our lefties have the ability to put the bunt down. Boesel and Bonezek have some speed from the right side.
"I'm hopeful we'll avoid prolonged batting slumps because of our experience. Our regular lineup will have two seniors and three juniors. Plus, sophomores Verdun, Braden and Coronado were All-BIG EAST last year. Add in Bree, and we'll have nine players with good experience.
"Among our freshmen, I'm looking for Paige to contribute right away. She has a good shot to be our leadoff hitter and can play second base, right field or be the designated player. Staci will see time at catcher and can fill in at third base. Brittany is going to be our shortstop.
"We'll need them to step up and play right away. I don't want to even refer to them as freshmen. I hope that's the last time I'll use that word."
UMKC returns eight starters including ace Deanna Friese (28-9, 1.82 ERA) from last year's 38-16 team that won the regular-season Summit League title. The Kangaroos' offense is headed by former Downers Grove South star Kaelene Curry (.378), Anna Sokolik (.359, 36 RBIs), ex-Maine West star Emily Ott (.354, 35 RBIs) and Megan Ussary (.315, 34 RBIs).
Curry, Ott, Ussary, Sokolik and Kelly Fischer combined for 96 stolen bases, and UMKC had 136 thefts as a team. Friese had 310 strikeouts in 242.1 innings.
DePaul takes on a Seattle ballclub on Friday that is coming off an 11-35 season. The Redhawks are led by Allegre Wilde who batted .336 with 12 doubles, three home runs and 30 RBIs. Seattle's pitching staff finished with a 6.34 team ERA, and the defense committed 66 errors which led to 76 unearned runs.
On Friday night (midnight Chicago time), the Blue Demons face a powerful Hawai'i team that bashed 56 home runs in 2011 while finishing 37-18.
Jessica Iwata (.355, 15 home runs, 44 RBIs) is on USA Softball's list of the top 50 players in the country. She is also a two-time, Western Athletic Conference (WAC) Player of the Year. Sharla Kliebenstein had 13 homers and 38 RBIs last season while All-American Kelly Majam had nine home runs and 25 RBIs.
Two-time WAC Pitcher of the Year Stephanie Ricketts was 22-11 with a 1.58 ERA. The Rainbow Wahine team ERA of 1.63 was No. 12 in the nation last year.
"Hawai'i is tough to beat on their home field, although we've done it in the past," Lenti said. "They have an explosive offense and Ricketts is an excellent pitcher. She is as good as any pitcher in the country."