The NFCA's eighth annual Leadoff Classic, Feb. 21-23 in Columbus, Ga., will feature 24 of the nation's top collegiate softball teams, including defending Women's College World Series champion California. The Golden Bears are one of six squads playing in the Leadoff Classic after ending last season at the Women's College World Series.
Nebraska, the 2002 Leadoff Classic champ, is poised to defend its title. Joining the Huskers will be other 2002 WCWS participants Arizona State, Florida State, Michigan, and Oklahoma.
Of the 24 teams in the field, 19 competed in NCAA postseason play in 2002, 17 of which finished in last year?s final USA Today/NFCA Top 25, including 13 teams ranked in the top 15.
Nebraska became the sixth Leadoff Classic champion in seven years to go on to compete in that year's Women?s College World Series. California's appearance marks the third time in the last five years the Leadoff Classic field has included the defending national champion.
The tournament format consists of six, four-team pools. Following pool play, the top team from each pool, along with two at-large teams, will advance to the gold championship bracket. The remaining four second-place teams along with four at-large teams will be placed in the silver championship bracket and the remaining eight teams will be assigned to the bronze championship bracket. All brackets will be single elimination/consolation. Each team will play a minimum of five games (three pool, two bracket) regardless of pool or bracket assignments.
Saturday bracket play will be at 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sunday's bracket play is scheduled for 9 a.m., 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.
Team-by-Team Capsule Previews
(2002 record in parentheses)
Head coach Pat Murphy enters his fourth yearat the helm in Tuscaloosa looking to improve on last year's third place SEC finish. With seven position players and 13 letterwinners returning, the Crimson Tide should be among the favorites in the SEC. All-Americans Ashley Courtney (.410, 40 RBI) and Jackie McClain (.390, 8 HR, 43 RBI) return for Bama. Murphy's squad also sports one of the nation's top freshman pitchers in Stephanie VanBrakle, a member of the USA National Junior Team.
Defending national champion California begins its quest back to Oklahoma City at the Leadoff Classic. The NCAA's all-time career walks leader, Veronica Nelson, returns. Nelson led the Bears with a .329 batting average and nine home runs last season. Catcher Courtney Scott (.301, 46 RBI) also returns for head coach Diane Ninemire, who is entering her 16th season in Berkeley.
Illinois State (34-17)
The Redbirds sport a young roster that includes 13 freshmen and sophomores. But head coach Melinda Fischer has experience where it counts - in the circle. Seniors Audra Rast (25-6, 0.99 ERA) and Corey Harris (9-9, 1.99 ERA) return for the regular season defending Missouri Valley Conference Champions.
Notre Dame (44-16)
The Fighting Irish are again favored to win the Big East in 2003 after returning seven starters from last year's squad, which went 18-2 in conference play. Senior third baseman Andrea Loman (.377, 12 HR, 43 RBI, 16 SB) and shortstop Andria Bledsoe (.315, 7 HR, 43 RBI) combined for a .966 clip last season to anchor a solid defensive infield for head coach Deanna Gumpf.
Cal State Fullerton (53-13)
The defending Big West champion Titans ended their season with two losses to eventual national champion California in regional play, and finished the season ranked No. 10 in the nation. Returning for head coach Michelle Gromacki will be catcher/infielder Jenny Topping (.472, 9 HR, 33 RBI), as well as a pair of solid pitchers in Gina Oaks (0.73 ERA) and Jodie Cox (1.54 ERA), who combined for 40 of Cal State Fullerton's 53 wins a year ago.
Louisiana State (56-11)
The 2002 Southeastern Conference champions finished third in the RPI ratings a year ago, but fell short of the Women's College World Series, losing to Arizona State in the regionals. Gone is All-American pitcher Britni Sneed, but junior Kristin Schmidt (17-4, 1.02 ERA) returns for the Tigers. First baseman Christi Connor, who led the team with seven home runs in 2002, also returns for head coach Yvette Girouard's squad.
Head coach Patty Gasso is just three years removed from a national championship, and with eight starters returning from a team that played in the Women's College World Series, the Sooners are poised to return to Oklahoma City for the fourth consecutive year. Offense will be the word in Norman as Christina Enea, Kelli Braitsch, Leah Gulla, Heather Scaglione, and Jennifer Stump all return after hitting at least nine home runs last year and combining for 52.
Head coach Maria DiBernardi hopes to lead Villanova to its first-ever NCAA tournament, and after a season in which the Wildcats set a school record for wins - 45, this could be the year. Nova returns its entire pitching staff from last year, led by senior Theresa Hornick (22-10, 1.32 ERA) and sophomore Shannon Williams (14-2, 1.11 ERA). The Wildcats sport an outfield in which all three players - Robin Flier, Lisa Krueger, and Allison Wisniewski - have been named All-Big East.
Arizona State (46-20)
The Sun Devils' season ended with a 3-0 loss to California in the semifinals of the Women?s College World Series. Senior Kara Brun, who set ASU single-season records for home runs (10) and RBIs (52), returns for head coach Linda Wells. Third baseman Phelan Wright (.402, 8 HR) will also bring solid performances to the plate while ASU looks to reload after losing four pitchers from last year's staff.
All-American Sarah Martz returns for her junior season and looks to lead DePaul to another Conference USA title. The Blue Demons' 2002 leaders in hitting (Liz Bouck, .400), home runs (Saskia Roberson, 7) and RBIs (Gina Ramacci, 33) all return for head coach Eugene Lenti?s squad. Lindsay Chouinard, who compiled a 32-6 record and a 0.47 ERA, will lead DePaul's pitching staff.
The Lady Flames were picked to finish fourth in the preseason Big South coaches' poll, but head coach Paul Wetmore hopes to make another run at the title after his squad went 4-0 in the Big South tournament last year to receive the school's only bid to the NCAA championships. Liberty returns seven position players and one pitcher from last year's squad, led by catcher Amanda Maska (.285, 8 HR, 24 RBI) and Lauren Hahn (.249, 8 HR, 26 RBI).
Ohio State (55-14)
It is never easy to replace an All-American, and Ohio State head coach Linda Kalafatis has to replace not one, but three. Shortstop Jennifer Link (.340, 71 H, 51 R), a third-team All-American selection herself, anchors a Buckeye squad that finished second in the Big Ten in 2002. Katie Chain (220 K), a 21-game winner a year ago, returns to the circle for the scarlet and gray.
Florida State (55-20)
Having to live in the shadow of a football team is difficult, but even more so at Florida State. The Seminole softball team made a name for itself in 2002, advancing to the semifinals of the Women's College World Series and finishing the season ranked No. 4 in the NFCA/USA Today Top 25 Poll. First team All-American Brandi Stuart (.391, 10 HR, 45 RBI, 54 SB) returns, as well as pitcher Jessica van der Linden (16-6, 1.43 ERA).
The Minutewomen return 13 letterwinners and six starters from a squad that finished a perfect 21-0 in Atlantic 10 play. Senior pitcher Kaila Holtz (23-7, 0.90 ERA, 175 K, 13 shutouts) returns for UMass. Head coach Elaine Sortino is approaching her 800th career win, and hopes to lead her team to an unprecedented 16th Atlantic 10 championship.
Oregon State (40-25)
Head coach Kirk Walker lost standout pitcher Crystal Draper to the Greek National Team, but returns solid performers to the diamond this spring. Monica Hoffman (14-9, 1.42 ERA) returns to the circle while second baseman Brynnen Gutherie (.342, 66 H) is back after leading the Beavers in batting average and hits in 2002.
Nine starters return for head coach Brian Kolze's 11th season at the helm in Stockton. In fact, the Tigers only lost two letterwinners from last year's 43-17 team that finished second in the Big West Conference. A trio of seniors, Barbara Moody (.352, 39 R, 37 RBI), Estee Okumura (.292, 7 HR, 39 RBI), and Brandy Thurman (.305, 3 HR, 25 RBI) will provide leadership as the Tigers look to return to the NCAA regionals.
Huskers head coach Rhonda Revelle expects even more success from her team, which is coming off a 50-win season and a No. 6 final ranking. A tough schedule awaits Nebraska, as it will face 15 teams who made last year's NCAA tournament. Senior All-American Kim Ogee (.356, 10 HR) leads the way for the Huskers. Also returning are All-Big XII performers Peaches James (22-9, 1.33 ERA), Lisa Wangler (.345, 60 H), and Nicole Trimboli (.342, 6 HR, 48 RBI).
North Carolina (34-30)
After a disappointing 2-6 record in the Atlantic Coast Conference, North Carolina made a run in the ACC tourney, falling to Georgia Tech in the title game. Head coach Donna Papa and UNC's all-time home run leader Natalie Anter look to revive the Tarheels and make a run to the NCAA tournament. Anter, who has hit 19 career home runs, is a three-time all-ACC selection.
Southern Mississippi (28-35)
The Golden Eagles have only made three appearances in the NCAA tournament, but they have made them count, advancing to the Women's College World Series twice behind the solid pitching of Courtney Blades. Last year's squad finished a disappointing 28-35, but finished second in Conference USA with a 15-8 mark. USM only returns five starters, led by Tammy Edwards and Heather Bell who co-led the Eagles with five home runs each in 2002.
Head coach John Rittman's Stanford squad had its season end after an 0-2 showing in regional play, but the Cardinal are hungry to return to Oklahoma City. Tori Nyberg (26-11, 1.51 ERA, 203 K) returns for her senior campaign along with Maureen LeCocq (16-9, 2.43 ERA). The pair combined for 42 of Stanford?s 44 wins a year ago.
Head coach Carol Hutchins and the Wolverines are prepared to defend their Big Ten Conference regular season and tournament championships. Big Ten pitcher of the year Marissa Young (27-8, 1.03 ERA, 319 K) and Big Ten freshman of the year Nicole Motycka (22-3, 1.33 ERA, 95 K) look to help Michigan return to its seventh Women's College World Series.
South Carolina (46-20)
One of the newest members of the NFCA Hall of Fame, Joyce Compton is entering her 17th season at the helm in Columbia. All-American pitcher Megan Matthews has departed, but the Gamecocks return sophomore Aleca Johnson (9-2, 1.39 ERA) to the circle along with three players (Meghan Cornett, Amber Curtis, and Samantha Jennings) who co-led the team with six home runs apiece.
Head coach Rocci Pignoli's Temple Owls are fresh off a campaign where they finished 15-6 in the up and coming Atlantic 10 Conference. Junior outfielder Katie Weigle (.366, 56 H, 35 R) and senior Bari Lynn Pflueger (.284, 6 HR 43 RBI/9-11, 2.21 ERA) will be important factors if the Owls are to advance to the regionals.
NFCA first team All-American Jamie Clark (.431, 19 HR, 75 RBI) is one of the nation's top players, and the Washington Huskies are a team to watch on the road to the Women's College World Series. Kristen Rivera added 16 homers for the powerful Husky squad in 2002, and the thought of facing this duo could cause opposing pitchers to have nightmares. Head coach Teresa Wilson returns eight starters from a squad that finished2002 ranked No. 14.