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USF First Test at BIG EAST Championship
Kirsten Verdun leads the Blue Demons into Thursday's BIG EAST Championship opener against USF.


Kirsten Verdun leads the Blue Demons into Thursday's BIG EAST Championship opener against USF.

May 9, 2012

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CHICAGO - Eugene Lenti would love nothing better than to see his players exhibit a little of that "Blue Demon swagger" heading into Thursday's BIG EAST Championship at Notre Dame.

The DePaul coach realizes the only guarantee of his program competing for the 17th time in the NCAA Championship tournament is winning the conference tournament and garnering the automatic bid.

Short of that, a parity-filled NCAA softball landscape leaves all kinds of scenarios about who will receive the precious at-large bids that will be announced at 9 p.m. Sunday via the NCAA Selection Show on ESPNU.

"This is the time where we have to win as many games as we can at the conference tournament and improve our record for an NCAA bid," Lenti said as the Blue Demons enter the postseason with a record of 34-19 and an NCAA RPI of 28. "This is what you play for, a conference tournament and potentially the NCAA tournament.

"Let's get it on. Everybody is starting fresh. What you did the previous 53 or so games doesn't matter.

"To succeed in the postseason, you need a hot pitcher, timely hitting and a very good defense. Hopefully, that's us."

DePaul ace Kirsten Verdun is having a memorable sophomore year, going 25-12 with a 1.69 ERA. Her 37 starts are the third-highest, single-season total in DePaul history. She is among the top four in strikeouts for a season and top five in complete games and innings pitched.

Verdun is expected to make her 17th consecutive start at 9 a.m. Thursday against USF in the BIG EAST tournament opener. She'll walk into Melissa Cook Stadium ranked No. 20 in the nation in wins and No. 23 in strikeouts.

"Verdun has been pitching well, and our hitting has been fairly solid overall," Lenti said. "She won't have to pitch more than one game a day, and I'll take my chances with her on the mound any day.

"Behind her, our defense has been one of our strengths all season and ranks No. 12 in the nation in fielding percentage.

"What helped stabilize the defense was Staci Bonezek at catcher, Paige Peterson in left field and our keystone combination of Allie Braden at shortstop and Lynsey Ciezki at second base. Our outfield play has been solid with Samantha Dodd in center and Katelyn Braget in right."

USF (45-10) finished fourth in the BIG EAST with a 17-5 conference record, one spot ahead of the 14-8 Blue Demons. Ace Sara Nevins is 26-4 with a 1.06 ERA and 268 strikeouts in 205.2 innings. Opponents have hit just .179 against her.

"USF is having a great year," Lenti said. "This team is loaded with three good pitchers and is among the deepest staffs in the BIG EAST. The Bulls have good experience and a nice blend of age and youth.

"They have good team speed, a solid defense and have come up with some big wins through the course of the year."

The Bulls have outhit their opponents .272-.188 and outscored them 231-93. They have hit 27 home runs and stolen 85 bases. Heading up the offense is Kourtney Salvarola (.349, 30 RBIs), Stephanie Medina (.311, seven home runs, 30 RBIs), Janine Richardson (.307, seven homers, 27 RBIs) and Kenshyra Jackson (five home runs, 33 RBIs).

This will be the first showdown between DePaul and USF this season. When last they met, DePaul won two of three last year at Cacciatore Stadium.

"The BIG EAST tournament is different because it's one-and-done," Lenti said. "It's like a series of game sevens. Or, in softball terms, it's like playing the double-elimination game three days in a row.

"I'm doing everything I can as a coach to put our players in a good position to win. It's all or nothing, and you've got to take some chances. This is no time for regrets.

"Come out real aggressive and take your best shot."