Last year, the BYU women's softball team surprised the collegiate softball world with a 19-game improvement from its first season in 2000, in which it went 16-27. The Cougars struggled early against a tough schedule with an 11-15 start, then won 24 of their last 35 games to finish the year 35-26. The Cougars won the Mountain West Conference regular season and tournament titles to reach their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance.
"We look to continue to build on last years successes," said head coach Mary Kay Amicone, who earned MWC Coach of the Year accolades for last year's turnaround performance.
BYU lost nine senior contributors from last year's squad to graduation. The Cougars recruited six top-notch freshmen and signed one experienced sophomore in Kate Walker, who started every game last season for the Oregon Ducks of the PAC-10. The Cougars also return MWC Freshman of the Year and First-Team All-American Oli Keohohou and All-Region and MWC Tournament MVP, Brooke Cadiente, a junior.
"It's hard to replace the senior leadership that we lost," Amicone said. "We need real game experience at the college level. I think that we're young but with real talent."
The Cougars will face a very tough non-conference schedule against the likes of Nebraska, UCLA, Cal-Berkeley, and Oregon State twice. The Cougars were picked second in the preseason coach's poll behind Utah, but received the most first-place votes with three. San Diego State will also provide a challenge with a Top 25 preseason ranking.
"We have an extremely challenging non-conference schedule that should help us prepare for conference play," Amicone said. "Our goal is to defend our conference title."
The infield is solid compared to last season's line-up. At first base Liz Boydston, formerly Pierce, was second on the team in hits last season with 59 and will provide senior leadership. She will be replacing Mindy Hanson, a two-year captain and All-Region performer who will be on the sidelines this season as a graduate assistant.
Kari Pringle, a senior who shared time with Jackie Ellis last season, will be starting at second base. Pringle started 43 games last season and was solid with 37 hits and 18 RBI.
Sophomore Kate Walker, a transfer from the University of Oregon, will fill the void left by Becca Erickson at the shortstop position. Walker gained valuable experience in the PAC-10 against top competition. Defensively, she is the best player on the team.
"We are fortunate to have Walker on the team this season," Amicone said. "She brings a lot of leadership to the team and is a very smart decision maker."
At third base Megan Johnson and Jill Roberts will be battling for the starting position. Johnson, who's been with the Cougars from the beginning, saw action in 21 games last season. Roberts played at Salt Lake Community College before transferring to the Cougars and played in 23 games in 2001.
Every position in the outfield is returning from last season led by power-hitting sophomore Keohohou from Newbury Park, Calif. Keohohou finished first the nation in two major statistics last season with a .458 batting average and a .993 slugging percentage. Keohohou also belted 21 home runs, which ties her for 12th best in NCAA history.
Cadiente, a first-team All-Region selection and co-captain, has been with the program from the beginning and shows excellent leadership for the team. Liz VanderLindon, previously Smith, has also been with the team for two seasons. She led the team in batting average in 2000 with .312, and is second all-time with 88 hits, behind only Lindsey Hodgen-Kelly with 91, who she will replace in the outfield.
"We have experience in the outfield and each player is comfortable playing with each other," Amicone said.
BYU lost Angie Christianson to graduation during the off-season. The team looks to freshmen Arron Layns and Lauren Watson will be battling for most of the playing time. Jessica Johnson, one of only four left from the Cougar's inaugural season, will make a push for a starting position as well. Layns is very talented and has some experience. Watson brings elite level experience to the team.
"The catchers have some big shoes to fill with the loss of Christianson," said Amicone.
The Cougars lost both their starters from last season, Maryon DeWitt-Wallentine and Meghann Pricer to graduation. Last year, the two seniors provided a 1-2 punch for most of the double-headers. This year looks to have more of a four-pitcher rotation. Junior Cynthia Fallowfield, formerly Polk, saw action in only two games as a pitcher but brought game experience from when she pitched at the University of Georgia. Sophomore Ariel Capra, a southpaw who only saw action in four games last season, should be a normal part of the rotation.
Freshman Niki Andersen, a highly-recruited freshman from Alta High School in Draper, has all the tools except actual college experience. Andersen had a .12 ERA in her high school career and an amazing 767 career strikeouts. Freshman Katy Barnes, a tall first-team All-State pitcher from Riverton, should also see some playing time this season.
"All four pitchers are very competitive, but lack experience only earned in actual game experience," Amicone said. "They have a variety of different styles and their strengths and abilities compliment each other."
BYU also added freshmen Debbie Dodds and Milli Jones to their roster this season. Dodds, a native of Twin Falls, Idaho was Louisville Slugger and NFCA second-team All-American in high school. Jones, a 5' 6' utility player who played on three-time state champion Alta High School, looks to contribute to the team's success.
The Cougars spent most of the season on the road last year waiting for the completion of Gail Miller Field on April 15, 2001. The 2,100-capacity stadium is the fourth largest in the country. The stadium features all stadium seats, a press box, locker rooms and state-of-the-art scoreboards. The reward for winning the conference title outright last season will be BYU hosting the MWC Tournament May 9-11.
"Our stadium is one of the most beautiful facilities in the country," Amicone said. "We should be a fun team to watch with our high-scoring games and power hitting."
BYU was tied for ninth in the country in home runs, blasting 54 out of the park last season. The Cougars were also ninth in slugging percentage.
BYU has high hopes for the season and the competition is taking notice of the fast success the program has experienced. The loss of senior leadership will hurt the team, but this will help the teammates rally around each other for strong unity.
"We have a good team chemistry and that is why we were so successful last year," Amicone said. "That is why we will be successful this year as well."
The Cougars have never been shy of a challenge and look to show the country that last season was no fluke. Although the Cougars are no longer a Cinderella story, respect will only come with improving every game and playing competitive against top competition. Look for the Cougars to continue their success and advance even further in the postseason.
"Our team has lots of character," Amicone said. "We have a lot of hard-working players who have accepted every challenge."