Pitching could be critical after 14-27 season

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Southeast Missouri State University softball coach Lana Richmond admits she was not quite prepared for what happened last year -- and who can blame her?

Richmond, one of the winningest softball coaches in NCAA Division I, suffered through by far the worst season of her career in 2002 when the Otahkians slumped to a 14-27 record, including a fifth-place 9-12 in the Ohio Valley Conference.

Prior to last year, Richmond had never experienced a losing season. Her 20-year Southeast record is 623-357, ranking her among the nation's top 25 winningest active Division I coaches. Since joining Division I in 1992, the Otahkians have won five OVC regular-season titles and four OVC Tournament crowns.

"It was a hard year," Richmond said. "I've never lost before, not even as a college player and in high school."

Richmond will try to get the Otahkians back on track this season, which begins Saturday and Sunday in the Austin Peay Tournament in Clarksville, Tenn. The Otahkians open their home schedule with a tournament March 7 through 9.

"Last year was tough. We lost some players before the season that we were really counting on, but we got through it and we made strides," Richmond said. "We will be a whole lot better this year."

Several returning players

The Otahkians graduated several key players from last season, led by first-team all-OVC catcher Jennifer Cobin, but return five position starters -- including three of the top four hitters based on batting average -- and two of their three primary pitchers.

Leading the returnees are senior outfielder Katie Cerneka, senior infielder Brooke Nett and sophomore pitcher/designated hitter Kelly Birk.

Cerneka and Nett had the top batting averages a year ago, at .315 and .312, while Birk was fourth at .291 and compiled a 7-12 pitching record with a 2.69 earned-run average. Nett was second-team all-OVC.

Other returning regulars are senior outfielder Kemi Rampi, junior infielder Jamie Birk and sophomore pitcher Rachel Van Fleet, who went 4-6.

Also back after seeing limited playing time last season are senior catcher Alicia Loucks, junior infielder Amy Thompson and junior outfielder Stacy DeClue of Jackson High School.

Richmond said she hopes the returning players, along with 11 newcomers, can help get the Otahkians get closer to the top of the OVC.

"I think all 20 players are quality. They're all going to see action and help," Richmond said.

Among the reasons Richmond looks for a much-improved season is her pitching staff, which struggled much of last season.

Kelly Birk, after a slow start, came on down the stretch as she and Van Fleet got their feet wet as freshmen. Those two will combine with freshman Melissa Van Velkinburgh and junior-college transfer Jessica Hunter to form a four-person rotation.

"Pitching dominates softball, and I think our pitching will be a lot better," Richmond said. "The good thing about our pitchers is they all have different styles. We hope to use all four quite a bit."

Opening lineup

For the season opener, Richmond said her lineup will feature Birk on the mound, freshman Lyndsey Webb at catcher, junior-college transfer Alana Bagby-Leonard at first base, Nett at second, freshman Kate Groden at shortstop, either Jamie Birk or junior-college transfer Marie Coode at third, Rampi in left field, junior-college transfer Amy Murphy in center and Cerneka in right.

Loucks, out of practice with an injury, likely will split time with Webb behind the plate while Thompson probably will serve as designated hitter when the Otahkians use one, and she'll also play some first base.

Richmond also expects DeClue, the squad's only local product, to receive quality playing time, as will junior-college transfer infielder Suzi Lair, freshmen outfielders Chris Bodine and Katy Hacker, and freshman catcher Leigh Ann Lunsford, although she might redshirt.

Eastern Kentucky is a unanimous choice to repeat as OVC champion as the Colonels return eight starters from a team that went 37-14 overall and 16-2 in league play.

Tennessee Tech, picked second, returns nine starters from a squad that went 17-3 in the OVC to lose the title on percentage points.

Southeast was picked to finish fourth in the eight-team conference.

"Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee Tech are undoubtedly the leaders of the pack," Richmond said. "The rest of the conference is very well balanced, and I definitely think we're going to be challenging."

mmishow@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 132

OTAHKS AT A GLANCE

Coaches: Lana Richmond, 623-357-2 in 20 seasons at Southeast. Assistants are Renee Enos (second year) and Tami Hebert (first year).

Last season: 14-27, 9-12 OVC (fifth place).

Last season's honors: Jennifer Cobin (first-team all-OVC); Courtney Eklund (second-team all-OVC); Brooke Nett (second-team all-OVC).

Returning starters: Sr. OF Katie Cerneka (.315, 2 2B, 1 HR); Sr. IF Brooke Nett (.312, 11 R, 7 2B, 1 HR, 12 RBIs); So. P/DH Kelly Birk (.291, 5 2B, 1 3B, 7-12, 2.69 ERA); Jr. IF Jamie Birk (.206, 2 2B, 2 HR, 9 RBIs); Sr. OF Kemi Rampi (.191, 8 R, 2 2B, 8 RBIs); So. P Rachel Van Fleet (4-6, 4.76 ERA).

Others returning: Jr. OF Stacy DeClue (.500 in four at-bats); Sr. C Alicia Loucks (.190, 1 HR in 21 at-bats); Jr. IF Amy Thompson (.083, 1 HR in 21 at-bats).

Newcomers: Fr. OF Chris Bodine; Jr. IF Marie Coode; Fr. IF Kate Groden; Fr. OF Katy Hacker; Jr. P Jessica Hunter; Jr. IF Suzi Lair; Jr. IF Alana Bagby-Leonard; Fr. C Leigh Ann Lunsford; Jr. OF Amy Murphy; Fr. P Melissa Van Velkinburgh; Fr. C Lyndsey Webb.

Local line: DeClue (Jackson HS).

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