The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

    Women’s softball hoping to improve on last year’s WIAC finish

    After winning the WIAC and placing fourth in the NCAA Div. III National Tournament in 2000, the Blugolds finished fourth in the five-team WIAC West Division last season.

    But the Blugolds are optimistic they’ll return to their glory days this season. With 12 returning letter winners, a solid core of seniors and a determined new coach, the team appears to have the right recipe for success.

    “We work really well together,” junior third baseman Brenda Westermann said. “We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”

    After nearly nine weeks of practicing indoors, the Blugolds will go west over spring break to play in 10 games at the Sun West Tourney in Orange, Calif.

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    “Everybody’s chomping at the bit to get off this gym floor and play a few games,” said coach Leslie Huntington, who has stepped in for Deb Steward (Steward is now the assistant coach).

    The team’s four seniors – center fielder Megan Grinnell, shortstop Tracy Steffens, second baseman Leah DeMares and catcher Danyell Smith – should have no problem filling the leadership role.

    “They’re doing a good job of guiding the younger players and teaching them about our expectations and this level of play,” Huntington said.

    Smith, who led the team with 22 runs batted in last season, was named the WIAC All-Conference First Team along with junior pitcher Kim Czapla and junior first baseman Dinah Martin. Martin batted .310 and pounded out 31 hits. Steffens earned honorable mention status by hitting .319 with five home runs and 18 RBI.

    Martin and Steffens are learning new positions. Last season, Martin played shortstop and Steffens played first base. Huntington said both players seem to be adjusting to their new roles quite well.

    The switch likely was tougher for Steffens, though. She was kept out of practice for four weeks because of appendicitis and according to Huntington, wasn’t at full strength until March 8.

    “She knows the game real well, so she’s making a fairly easy adjustment,” Huntington said. “It’s just a matter of learning the timing at the shortstop position.”

    In order to improve on last year’s 3-5 mark in the WIAC West and get past the three teams that finished ahead of them – UW-La Crosse, UW-River Falls and UW-Superior – the Blugolds will have to boost their offensive production.

    The team finished seventh in the nine-team WIAC with 3.5 runs scored and fifth batting a .275 average. The Blugolds worked hard on their hitting since they started practice Jan. 22, and Smith is confident it will pay off.

    “Our hitting has really improved,” Smith said. “Our lineup is strong all the way one through nine.”

    Two crucial areas that weren’t a problem last year are defense and pitching.

    The Blugolds had the second best fielding percentage in the conference behind UW-Whitewater. The pitching staff had a combined earned run average of 2.14 and allowed just 2.7 runs per game – third best in the WIAC.

    Czapla, who went 18-7 with a 1.49 ERA in 155 innings pitched, is the team’s ace hurler. She’ll be joined in the rotation by junior Jessie Sharpe (6-9, 2.60) and freshman Jessica Schils.

    Sharpe said the trio doesn’t worry about overpowering opposing hitters but rather consistently finding the strike zone.

    “We’re not afraid to let them hit the ball,” Sharpe said. “We have an excellent defense behind us, so why not use it?”

    The outfield will be led by the Grinnell sisters. Megan Grinnell starred in 43 games as centerfielder last season, collecting 30 hits, 10 stolen bases and a conference-leading 46 putouts. In 34 games, Jannah Grinnell batted .287 with 27 hits and 12 RBI. Junior Jane Taragos will likely be the team’s third outfielder.

    At the Sun West tourney, the Blugolds will play two games each day from Monday through Friday, starting with Luther College (Iowa) and the University of St. Thomas (Minn.).

    Half of the teams the Blugolds will play – four from California and one from Oregon – will have had plenty of practice and competition outdoors.

    Some teams will have 20 or 30 games already under their belt, Huntington said.

    “It’s not going to be a cake walk,” Huntington said. “We’re going to have 10 very tough games that are going to give us a good idea going into the WIAC (season) what type of team we’re going to have.”

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    Women’s softball hoping to improve on last year’s WIAC finish