Jan. 18, 2002
A new beginning. After going under the .500 mark for the first time in five years in 2001, 13 letterwinners return to Head Coach Jacquie Joseph's squad in 2002, bringing experience to a team looking to keep the winning tradition alive at Michigan State. Losing only two players from a year ago, this squad is determined to get the Spartans back to national prominence in which the program saw two NCAA Regional appearances in 1997 and 1999 and five consecutive 30-win seasons from 1996-2000.
"With this much experience coming back, I'm very optimistic about this season," said Joseph. "Coming off last year, which was disappointing from what we're used to, we need to focus more on the steps necessary to achieve our goals. Every year our goal is to win the Big Ten Championship, be a top-four seed in the Big Ten Tournament and to compete in the NCAA Tournament.
"The good news is a lot of players are coming back - not just players that were on the team, but players that started and played last year. We had a lot of inexperience last year and had to start several freshmen and sophomores, which in part was the reason we had a tough year. But this year, they're all back."
The absence of upperclassmen on last year's team will be made up for with the 2002 team that features three seniors and five juniors. The void that left last season wide open should be solved this year - leadership and team chemistry.
"We've had a much better fall than we've had in the past," Joseph said. "I've been real impressed with the team chemistry. They've worked harder and put some more time into the mental and team building skills needed to win. You have to have talent, but you also have to have the right team chemistry. It appears in the fall and in practice that the players have really made a commitment to do these little things that help the team."
"I think a lot of our success will come down to the pitching staff," said Joseph. "All three of our main pitchers are back. It's rare for a team to say their entire staff is back, but ours is."
Becky Gray has put up some impressive numbers in her first three years, entering the season fifth in career strikeouts (232), sixth in shutouts (11) and wins (26) and ninth in innings pitched. She was among the Big Ten leaders in innings and strikeouts, led the team in wins and tossed five shutouts in 2001.
"Becky is ready for a big year," said coach. "I think she realizes that earlier in her career, she let too many things get in the way of her success. After the fall, she's demonstrated that she's ready for the challenge, and is No. 1 entering the spring."
Keri DeJong and Jessica Beech will be counted on heavily as well. After a stellar sophomore season in which she won a team-best 13 games, DeJong continued to be a force on the mound by striking out 70 batters and notching five wins her junior campaign. DeJong is looking to improve on her 225 career strikeouts that ranks sixth all-time at MSU. Beech has showed tremendous improvement from her freshman year after the summer and fall seasons. In her rookie season, she posted eight wins and led the team in ERA and only walked 17 batters in 102 innings of work.
Freshman Dominique Van Nortwick is a welcome addition to the pitching staff and will see several opportunities on the mound this season.
Five Spartans will compete for the outfield positions. The loss of three-time All-Big Ten selection Shealee Dunavan leaves a gap in center field, but every position is wide open entering 2002.
"There's a lot of good competition out there right now, probably more than ever," Joseph said. "I think the outfield is one of the most exciting situations we've had in a long time."
Juniors Tiffany Wallace and Sandy Lewis and sophomore Angel Merren all have experience, while freshmen Lauren Pedersen and Sheridan Fowler had a great fall and provide good hitting and speed for the Spartans.
Wallace has hit at least .300 in each of her two seasons and nailed 12 doubles in 2001, good for ninth in the Big Ten and tied for fourth-best in an MSU season. Lewis demonstrated her improved power with a game-winning home run in the fall season and Merren was fourth on the team with a .279 batting average in her first year.
Pedersen and Fowler pushed the upperclassmen in the fall with speed and defense, proving that they might be ready to contribute in their rookie seasons.
Coach Joseph faces an interesting situation in the infield slots. The corners are solidified at first and third base, but the middle infield has several players who are neck and neck on the depth chart at second base and shortstop.
"Our corners are locked up," Joseph said of first baseman Natalie Furrow and third baseman Brittney Green. "They're only sophomores but are two of the best players at the corners in the conference. Both had real strong freshman seasons and we expect even more this season."
Furrow missed the first half of last season with a thumb injury, but still managed to lead the team in hitting with a .312 average while tallying 25 hits and five doubles. She also had a solid .989 fielding percentage.
Green, who started all 60 games at third base in 2001, was among the Big Ten leaders in walks (second-30), on base percentage (ninth-.408) and doubles (12th-11). She posted 43 hits, 16 RBI and two home runs while maintaining a .960 fielding percentage and a team-best 137 assists at the hot corner.
At second base, senior Amanda Melton will get the nod at the beginning of the season, despite missing the fall season with a shoulder injury. Melton is a four-year starter who brings valuable experience to a young crop of middle infielders. Margaret Schick started in 50 games at shortstop last season and will see time there this year along with Jessica Beech. Beech, who was a utility player last year, will only see time at pitcher and shortstop in 2002. Freshman Janette Hurtado is right behind Melton at second base and Schick and Beech at shortstop. Robyn Golden, a utility player with a powerful swing, could see time at any position in the infield other than second base.
"There's pretty good depth at the infield as well," said Joseph. "Time will tell who will start in these positions once we get some practice and games in."
Starting all 60 games last year at the catching position, junior Lacy Hauxhurst has earned her way into the starting role once again in 2002. Hauxhurst is one of the most dominant fielding catchers in the Big Ten. She threw out 23 runners caught stealing last season, good for second in the conference, and led the team with 234 putouts. Pushing Hauxhurst behind the plate will be Robyn Golden. She has seen action in both her freshman and sophomore years.
Coach Joseph has always put together a rigorous non-conference schedule to prepare her Spartans for the tough Big Ten season, and this year's edition is no different.
MSU begins the season with its annual trip to the Arizona State Classic in Tempe, Ariz., competing against Oklahoma State, Illinois State, Iowa and Arizona State. After ASU, the Spartans head to the three-team Elon University Tournament in Elon College, N.C., featuring matchups against former MSU All-American and current Elon Head Coach Patti Raduenz and UNC-Greensboro.
The first weekend of March, MSU co-hosts the inaugural Plant City Strawberry Fest Tournament in Florida along with the International Softball Federation. Coach Joseph helped organize the tournament that has teams from the Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, Big East and MAC conferences. The Spartans will face South Carolina, Ohio, Missouri and Pittsburgh in the tourney. MSU closes out it spring break trip with the prestigious Speedline Invitational in Tampa, going against Georgia State, Maryland, BYU, Houston and Florida International in pool play.
Once spring break concludes, MSU travels to the Winthrop Tournament in South Carolina for matchups with Tulsa, Providence, Tennessee State and Winthrop. The team concludes its non-conference schedule at the annual Buzz Classic in Atlanta hosted by Georgia Tech. MSU will face Maryland, Elon, Western Kentucky and North Carolina in pool play of the 24-team tournament.
"This year we have a great mix of teams," said Joseph. "I really doubt the players are going to be intimidated by anyone this year after facing five ranked teams in the first 10 games last season. They have been there and done that. This year's schedule should have a very high RPI - if we do well enough, it will get us into the NCAA Tournament." After the tough non-conference season, the harsh Big Ten conference awaits. Four teams earned NCAA Tournament berths last season, including two teams (Michigan and Iowa) who made it to the College World Series.
"I think the conference is going to be even better than last year," Joseph said. "Our conference was excellent in 2001, and it gets tougher every year."
While inexperience and leadership were two question marks in 2001, this year MSU is ready to fix that void with another winning season filled with 13 returning letterwinners, an experienced pitching staff and positive team chemistry.
"Our players have worked hard for this season," said Joseph. "I was very impressed with the work ethic and team chemistry in the fall. Our team is working together. Barring any injuries, I think this team is set to make some noise."