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Jan. 20, 1998

1998 Softball Outlook

VILLANOVA, Pa. - After starting the 1997 season 15-23, the Villanova softball team turned the season around finishing 9-5 to end the year at 24-28. Despite losing two of the Wildcats' best to graduation in Bridget Baxter and Natalie Black, the Wildcats have the nucleus of the team back and an outstanding freshman class joining the ranks. For the Wildcats this season, the 1998 Big East Conference title race should be a memorable one.

With most of the staff back from 1997, pitching will be a major strength for the Wildcats in the upcoming season. Heading the staff is sophomore Carrie Walpole, who led Villanova with 10 victories and a 1.52 ERA last season. A hard throwing righthander, Walpole struck out 60 batters in 1997, limiting opponents to a .230 batting average. Leading the Villanova staff in innings pitched with 132 last season, senior Brenda Roach finished second on the team in victories with seven and will look to improve upon that total this season. The final returning pitcher for the Wildcats in 1998 is senior Jennifer Cornelius. Cornelius recorded 2.91 ERA last season, tallying six victories in 96-plus innings.

New to the Wildcat pitching staff in 1998 are freshmen Keri Stoller and Faith Meisinger. Stoller, from West Linn High School in West Linn, Ore., was an honorable mention All-State member as a senior, who possesses both outstanding movement and velocity. Meisinger, a transfer from Liberty, already has the experience of pitching in a competitive league and knows what to do to win at the college level. The two freshman will give Villanova the depth that they lacked last season.

"We have five pitchers who each have a variety of six pitches and all pitch differently," said head coach Maria DiBernardi. "We have two pitchers that throw hard and three that change speeds to keep batters off-balance. Each compliment each other with their unique styles of pitching."

At catcher for the Wildcats, senior Kelli McCoy and freshman Jennifer Johnson will split time behind the plate. McCoy, an All-Region selection in 1997, has more experience and is an outstanding defensive catcher. When she is not catching, McCoy will see time at first base, and will also serve as designated player to keep her bat in the lineup. She hit .397 last season with a team-high 34 RBI. Johnson, a three-time All-County selection from Napa High School in Vallejo, Calif., will also see a great deal of time behind the plate.

The stabilizing force for the Wildcats in the infield in 1998, is senior Kelly Sparks, who will play first base. The defensive team leader on the field, Sparks also had 16 RBI at the plate. She will be expected to lead the team both defensively and offensively, giving power to the middle of the lineup. Sparks' partner on the right side of the infield is sophomore second baseman Megan O'Leary. Last season, O'Leary led the team in hitting with a .404 average, starting in 36 games.

"Offensively, I have never seen a sophomore as good as Megan," said DiBernardi. "On defense, she has adjusted tremendously and showed improvement every game this fall. She is starting to become one of the leaders of this infield."

The shortstop position will have a triple threat in 1998, with sophomore Tiffany Bachman, freshman Gina Defranesco and fellow rookie Jackie Pasquerella each sharing time. Playing time, however, will depend on who produces offensively. Last season as a freshman, Bachman hit .235 with five RBI and was named to the Big East All-Rookie Team. Bachman and Pasquerella, a three-time All-American out of Bayshore High School in Bayshore, N.Y., will be the utility players for the Wildcats, as each can play any position throughout the infield.

"This is a spot where we can switch all three players around," said DiBernardi. "I feel comfortable putting all three into the game because they can get the job done."

At third base, sophomore Melissa Crombet and Bachman will each see substantial playing time. Starting in 30 games last season, Crombet hit .241 with 7 RBI. Both Bachman and Crombet contributed significantly as freshman and will expected to do the same this year to help strengthen the left side of the Wildcat infield.

The young, inexperienced outfield of just one year ago remains intact with a year of experience under their belt in 1998. In leftfield roams senior Jessica DeLuca, a second team All-Region member, who stars on both offense and defense for the Wildcats. Starting in all 52 games last season as the lead off hitter, DeLuca hit .337 and had a .400 on base percentage. Deadly on the base paths, she broke the Villanova record for stolen bases in 1997, stealing 23 bases in 23 attempts.

"Jessica is the type of lead off hitter any coach would want on their team. She gets on base and is an outstanding base runner," said DiBernardi. "Jessica is also an outstanding defensive player, who goes back and in on balls very well, and has a strong arm."

The remaining two outfield spots are two of the deepest positions for the Wildcats and will be filled by a variety of players. In centerfield, sophomores Kristen Verhoff and Regina Speicher, along with freshman Janna Bullock will share the duties. Last season, Verhoff started in 25 games, hitting .316 with a team leading three home runs to go with 17 RBI. Speicher, who missed all but six games due to injury, looks to come back strong this spring.

The rightfield duties will also be handled by a group of three in Verhoff, senior Stacey Stack and sophomore Mia Brickhouse. Stack hit .235 in Big East Conference play and was magnificent in the field tallying a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage. Playing in 25 games and starting in five, Brickhouse had an outstanding freshman season, batting .429.

The Wildcats hit only nine homeruns as a team last season, tallying a .355 slugging percentage. With a year of experience under their belts and a great off-season, as well as an outstanding fall softball season, Villanova will look to improve upon their power numbers in 1998.

"Kelli McCoy, Megan O'Leary, Kelly Sparks and Kristen Verhoff look to be the meat of the order right now," said DiBernardi. "This is the physically strongest team that we have ever had. We were putting balls out of the park this fall, that we didn't put out last year."

With nine freshman on the roster in 1997 and little depth, Villanova lost seven games by one run and 10 games by two runs or less. This season, the Wildcats have a group of seniors led by captains Jen Cornelius, Jessica DeLuca, Kelli McCoy and Brenda Roach who have been through good times as well as the bad times and a sophomore class who after one season know now what it takes to pull out the close games they lost just one season ago.

"We have a senior class that is very experienced, self motivated and goal oriented. They know what they want and they know how to get it," said DiBernardi. "The girls are very hard on each other, but in a positive way. We motivate and push each other to make ourselves better both individually and as a team."

Batting .288 as a team last season and giving up only 2.57 runs a game, the 1997 Wildcats had few weaknesses other than inexperience. In 1998, Villanova has the pitching, speed, power and defense to put them among the contenders in the Big East Conference. The Wildcats also have the depth with their six incoming freshmen to go three to four deep at every position, a luxury they did not have a year ago.

"I really don't think we have any weaknesses this year," said DiBernardi. "There are things we need to work on and perfect in order to get better, but I don't think we have any weaknesses."

With the talent both at bat and in the field and the depth throughout their roster, the 1998 Villanova softball team is looking to turn their 6-12 conference record of a year ago around, to make themselves contenders for this season's Big East Conference title. To do that, the Wildcats will have to beat out perennial powerhouses such as Connecticut, Notre Dame, Boston College and Rutgers.

"The race is going to be really tight this season, because the Big East is getting to be so competitive. We will probably need to take four of six from Notre Dame and Rutgers in our division to be in the thick of things," said DiBernardi. "This group of seniors is a group that I have seen a tremendous difference in over their four years. I am so proud of what they have done and what they have grown into, both on and off the field. They are ready to shine this year."

With the senior class looking to go out with a bang and the sophomores already proving they are above their years, the upcoming season looks to be a bright one. Learning to win together and lose together last year, the 1998 Villanova softball team will succeed not just by sheer talent, but because they possess what every team needs to be successful, the heart of champions.