Daily 49er

Softball faces formidable teams in San Diego

Team will play No. 17-ranked Stanford twice, but will contend with University of San Diego, Illinois-Chicago in weekend tournament.

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Long Beach State softball will finally be at bat this weekend in the University of San Diego Tournament, but the team’s competition will not be for the weak-hearted.

The 49ers will open their season against No. 17-ranked Stanford on Saturday, a NCAA Regional qualifier last year. These teams will meet again on Sunday, but LBSU will face two teams before the rematch. Tournament host San Diego and Illinois-Chicago are the 49ers’ other opponents, and give LBSU some formidable competition amid a two-game clash with the Cardinal.

Head coach Kim Sowder believes all three teams will be a challenge, but her team is looking at them all in the same fashion.

“We’re just focused on playing every team the same,” Sowder said. “We know that Stanford is ranked in the top-25. San Diego and Illinois-Chicago are very good teams. We really want to find out where we’re at [this season].”

Here is a preview of LBSU’s first three opponents:

No. 17-ranked Stanford (35-21-1 last season)

Led by twelfth-year head coach John Rittman, the Cardinal have made the NCAA Tournament 10 consecutive times and return a bulk of their hitters and defensive starters from 2007. One of those returning stars is third-team All-American sophomore outfielder Alissa Haber.

Haber led the team with a .365 batting average and 40 runs scored in 2007. The second-year phenom also had four homeruns with a team-high .538 slugging percentage last season.

Stanford’s talent obviously doesn’t stop with Haber. Senior infielder Michelle Smith is another returning talent whose eight homeruns, 44 RBI and 97 assists led the team last season. Sophomore Shannon Koplitz, who had two runs scored in the team’s 3-0 win over LBSU last March, scored 20 runs in 2007.

The Cardinal will return starting 25-win junior pitcher Missy Penna, who finished with 308 strikeouts and a 2.45 ERA last year. Penna struck out seven in Stanford’s win over the 49ers last season. Also back is sophomore catcher Rosey Neill, who was second on the team with 33 RBI, but had a team-high 384 putouts.

LBSU will have two opportunities to defeat a team it hasn’t beaten since 2003. The 49ers have lost their last three games to the Cardinal, all of which were at Stanford.

San Diego (24-26 last season)

Most of the Toreros’ wins came at home, where the team finished 16-10 last season. Head coach Melissa McElvain has a young core of players for this season. Ten of the team’s athletes are first- or second-year players.

Only four seniors are on the roster, and one of those seniors is third base player Kathleen Bonja, who had a .327 batting average in 2007 and tied for the team lead in hits with 54.

Sophomore shortstop Carey Casciola scored 30 runs last season. However, her specialty was her tenacity between the bases, as she was a team-high 10-12 on stolen bases. Two of Casciola’s runs came against LBSU in the teams’ most recent meeting, an 8-4 victory on Feb. 25 last year. The Toreros scored four runs in the extra inning to break a 4-4 tie and secure the win over the 49ers.

Sophomore pitcher Jennifer Ellenbeck, who posted a 9-7 record last year, is equally talented with the bat, as she was the team’s leader in home runs last year with five and tied for the team lead in RBI with 27.

Illinois-Chicago (20-33 last season)

Despite losing six of their last eight games to end the regular season, the Flames came on strong in the Horizon League Tournament and reached the semifinals before losing to Wright State by one run, and dropping a consolation game to Cleveland State by one run. Led by co-head coaches Tom Gray and Sarah O’Malley-Fisher, the Flames enter 2008 with their three top hitters from last season, one of them being their top pitcher as well.

Junior pitcher Sarah Clynes (16-17 record) was the team’s best hitter with a .391 batting average. She also led the Flames with five home runs, 61 hits and was second on the team with 28 RBI.

Clynes was just as effective at the mound last season, as she threw 135 strikeouts and recorded five shutouts. The two-way threat also led the team with 66 assists.

Junior infielder Melissa Marinacci followed Clynes with three home runs, but was more of a defensive threat. Marinacci led the team with 237 putouts and a .984 fielding percentage. Sophomore infielder Brooke Frydenhall also had three home runs last season, but led the team with 31 RBI and was second on the team with a .333 batting average.

Like San Diego, Illinois-Chicago possesses a dangerous runner who has a knack for stealing bases. Senior outfielder Ashlee Ackerman led the team in that category last season, as she went 10-12.

LBSU put out the Flames in its last meeting, a 4-0 shutout in the team’s 2006 opener at the UNLV Tournament.

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