When the Whitworth softball team opens the 2013 season this weekend, the Pirates will be looking to build on last year's 19-21 season.
"One thing I think the team took from last year was that we can play with some tough teams if we play confident," Whitworth head coach Cristal Brown said. "The girls have really focused on setting psychological and emotional goals as opposed to win-loss record goals. They believe that if they play with mental-toughness and passion every pitch that winning will take care of itself."
Brown, now in her second season leading the Pirates, has a team that didn't lose much in the offseason, but was able to bring in both local and out-of-state talent.
The Pirates graduated starting second-baseman Sami Parr and relief catcher Ashley Greig, but return 2012 All-NWC honorees senior Jamie Brunner and senior Heather Hesselgesser and bring in five true freshmen—two of which are from Spokane.
"Jamie and Heather will be looked at to continue to contribute extensively with their bats. They both should be big RBI producers. Our newcomers bring a good combination of needed speed as well power to our lineup," Brown said.
Whitworth returns six players that combined for 43 stolen bases last season, including Brunner, who stole nine bases and was never caught. Brunner, Hesselgesser, sophomore Sacha Clow, junior Caylan Haehl, senior Natalie Evers and junior Hanna Boyd look to add to that number this season.
As for the newcomers, the freshmen boast two state championships, six state appearances, a league championship, a school record for most home runs in a row and multiple All-League, All-State and All-Areas honors between them. Brittany Connor, Alyssa Hall, Bailey Kasler, Alyssa Martinez and Megan John make up Cristal Brown's first full recruiting class, and they come highly decorated.
The Bucs also return all four of last season's pitchers, including redshirt sophomore Taylor Gilbert, who went 10-6 with an ERA of 4.33 in 2012.
NWC Competition: Whitworth will open conference play when it faces Linfield on February 23rd and 24th in McMinnville. However, playing in the Northwest Conference is not an easy task.
"I think we have the toughest conference in the nation," Brown said.
In four of the last six NCAA DIII softball championship games, an NWC team has been the champion or runner-up. The last two NCAA DIII softball champions have come from the Northwest Conference, with Linfield taking the honor in 2011 and Pacific Lutheran claiming it in 2012. The 2012 championship game pitted NWC against NWC, as Pacific Lutheran faced Linfield in Salem, Va.
The top four finishers in the final NWC standings will advance to the conference tournament at the home of the regular season champion. That tournament will determine the league's automatic berth to the NCAA Championships.
Challenging Schedule: Whitworth will take on five teams that finished 2012 ranked in the top 16 of the NFCA Coaches poll (as of June 4, 2012), and they will play doubleheaders with three of those teams.
The Pirates open the season with a doubleheader at Redlands on January 31st, who finished last season ranked 16th after falling to PLU in regional action. After facing Cal Lutheran and La Verne on February 1st and 2nd, respectively, Whitworth will travel to McMinneville on February 23rd and 24th where they will face last year's runner up Linfield College in a pair of doubleheaders. The Wildcats finished 2012 ranked second. The very next weekend, Whitworth returns home to face the defending DIII national champion, Pacific Lutheran in a pair of doubleheaders on March 2nd and 3rd.
In the NTC Spring Games in Florida, the Pirates will once again face tough competition, as they start day two of the tournament against No. 15 Wisconsin-River Falls on March 27th. The Bucs will close out their NTC Spring Games trip against No. 5 Luther on March 28th.
Links to live stats for the California games can be found on the 2013 softball schedule.