Jan. 30, 2012
EAST LANSING, Mich. - The 2012 softball preseason polls were released last week and the Michigan State softball team will be facing six of the Top 25 teams in the nation this year. The Spartan schedule has an average RPI of 65 for the entire season and 44 for the first week alone, the most challenging in head coach Jacquie Joseph's era.
MSU will put its skills to the test early as it opens the season on Feb. 10 against Louisville in the Combat Classic in Miami, Fla. Louisville reached the regional level of the 2011 NCAA Women's College World Series and is currently ranked No. 25 in the nation.
The Spartans will then head to Gainesville, Fla. to take on the Gators in a three-game series from Feb. 17-19. Florida is considered the second-best team in the country after falling to Arizona State in the 2011 Women's College World Championship Series.
The Green and White will stay in the Sunshine State to play Tulsa and three others in the annual Strike Out Cancer Tournament. No. 24 Tulsa was the 2011 Conference USA regular season champions and reached the Normal Regional Finals but fell to then-ranked No. 9 Oklahoma.
In the next two weeks, Michigan State will travel to California to face Stanford and UCLA. The Cardinal is sitting in the ninth spot in the preseason poll and made it to the NCAA Super Regionals before falling to then-ranked No. 2 Alabama. MSU will then take on 11-time National Champions, UCLA, who are currently ranked No. 19. The Bruins also reached the 2011 NCAA Tournament but lost to Florida in the Gainesville Regional Finals.
Big Competition in the Big Ten
With the expansion of the league, there are currently two Big Ten schools that are ranking the Top 25 preseason poll. In mid-April the Spartans will face rival Michigan once at Seccia Stadium and twice in Ann Arbor in a home-and-home three game series. Michigan is the 15th-best team in the country and finished atop the Big Ten in 2011. The Wolverines hosted the Ann Arbor Regional in the Women's College World Series, but fell in the finals against Kentucky.
The Nebraska softball team joins the Big Ten Conference after reaching the Stanford Regional level of the 2011 tournament. Michigan State will battle the No. 21 team in the country on the Cornhusker turf at the end of April (28 and 29).
Head Coach Jacquie Joseph is confident about how her team will handle the pressure of this year's schedule. The Spartans are led by 13 returning letterwinners who have previously been tested by tough competition while talented freshman will provide depth to the lineup.
Returning for her third-straight year as the starting catcher is senior Brett Williams. The Fishers, Ind. native finished last season second on the team in many offensive categories, including runs scored (34), hits (51), doubles (nine), triples (three), home runs (13) and RBIs (52).
"Last year Brett finished second in the league in home runs and I think she is one of the best catchers in the Big Ten Conference," said Joseph. "She will provide confidence and calmness to our unproven pitching staff."
Backing up Williams behind the plate is junior Mary Kate DiVirgilio and freshman Ellie Stoffer. Last season DiVirgilio started five of the 35 games she appeared in while registering 39 at-bats. Stoffer joins the Spartans after being named to the Southeastern Conference All-Conference First Team as a junior in high school.
Sophomore Emma Fernandez will be a utility player for Michigan State. Her main duties will include preparing the pitchers as a bullpen catcher.
Joseph and her staff will do something that's unexpected in the softball world by starting freshman McKinzie Freimuth at first base. In high school, Freimuth led her team to the state championship as a junior, boasting a batting average of .492. The Combined Locks, Wisc. native was named the 2009-10 Gatorade Wisconsin Softball Player of the Year and received first team all-state honors as a freshman, sophomore and junior.
"It is rare to start a freshman at first base," Joseph said. "But McKinzie is highly skilled and I think she will be ready to start her career as a Spartan right away."
Handling the duties of second base will be junior Jenny Ramsaier. In 2011, Ramsaier appeared at bat 66 times, tallying seven runs, 10 hits and two RBIs. From Mesa, Ariz., Ramsaier started 37 of the 49 games she appeared in.
Expected to start at the shortstop position is another newcomer, freshman Alyssa McBride. The Mattawan, Mich. native earned all-state honors as a junior in high school after posting a .556 batter average and 75 hits, ranking 10th all-time in state history.
"Alyssa probably has the biggest shoes to fill because she is replacing All-American and Big Ten home run leader Lindsey Hansen," said Joseph. "Shortstop is a very difficult position to play and it's very rare to have a freshman start there. But, Alyssa has all the tools needed to be successful at the position and she has a lot of experienced players around her."
At third base will be Jayme O'Bryant, who will be a second-year starter at the position. O'Bryant started 35 of the 37 games she appeared in last year, finishing the season with 13 runs and 26 hits in 96 at-bats.
"Jayme has shown a lot of improvement over the last two years and we look for her to have a big year at third base," Joseph said.
Junior Raime Cronkhite has the opportunity to see playing time at second base or at the shortstop position. A transfer student from the University of Dayton, Cronkhite appeared in 19 games and started four times for the Flyers.
Taking the reins at left field is senior Lori Padilla. From Delray Beach, Fla., Padilla started 42 of the 38 games she appeared in last year and recorded 138 at-bats. She finished third in runs scored (32) and fourth in hits (41) and had the fifth highest batting average for the Spartans (.297). Padilla also registered three doubles and six RBIs for the season
"Lori should start in left field and will bat at the one or two spot in the batting rotation," said Joseph. "Lori adds leadership to the outfield and brings a spark to the team."
Making a switch from last year, Kylene Hopkins will be moving from right to center field for the 2012 season. The junior will bring experience to center field as she started all 54 games in 2011 and appeared at bat 150 times. Hopkins notched 29 runs and 36 hits last season and tied for third on the team in triples with two.
Senior Ali Grant will begin the 2012 season starting at right field. The Lutz, Fla. native started 47 of the 52 games she appeared in last year and tallied 144 at-bats. She recorded the fifth highest total runs scored on the team with 25 and finished fourth on the team in batting average (.319).
"Ali is a very versatile player, having started in many positions over her career at MSU. We are moving her to right field in order to get an extra bat in the lineup this year," Joseph said.
There are a number of Spartans that have the potential to fill the designated hitter position. Bowling's home run potential makes her the leading candidate for the DH, but DiVirgilio, senior Melanie Bensema, Stoffer and Cleary are also vying for the spot.
Senior Rebecca Rogers will fill the position of relief pitcher for the 2012 season. Last year, Rogers added depth to lineup appearing in five games. She pitched 11 innings, finished four games and tallied a 2.55 ERA.
Leading the Spartan pitching staff is sophomore Cassee Layne. As a freshman, she started 34 games, leading MSU in wins (15), innings pitched (181.2) and batters struck out (124). Layne currently ranks seventh in school history for 40 appearances in a single-season, while her eight shutouts are tied for third.
Freshman Carly Nielsen will hit the mound as a right-handed pitcher. The Blair, Nebraska, native also brings another bat into the lineup as she can hit for herself. In high school, Neilsen earned first team all-state honors in 2008, 2009 and 2010 and was listed on the All-Nebraska super state team in both 2009 and 2010.
Shelby Wise will play the role of MSU's go-to relief pitcher. The junior finished 2011 as the number one relief pitcher in the Green and White. She recorded three saves on the year, ranking her tied for sixth in MSU history for a single-season performance.
"I feel very confident with our offense, but where we still need to prove ourselves is on the mound," said Joseph. "I don't think we have one person that will pitch a full seven innings, so we will most likely see games pitched by committee. I expect all four pitchers to get significant innings, which makes things interesting. Everyone has to be ready every game."