By Richard Dougherty, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - With piles of snow flooding Beard Field, one might be skeptical about softball season kicking off in just a week. Thankfully, there's not a flurry to be found in Boca Raton, Fla., where the Nittany Lions will make their 2015 debut.
In years past, there hasn't been much to be scared of in Penn State's dugout, but a deep, veteran outfield group this year should have opponents marking their calendars before the season starts.
Leading the charge for this year's group is junior Lexi Knief. She was named an All-Big Ten second team honoree in her sophomore season, while leading the Nittany Lions in batting average, slugging percentage, runs, hits, and doubles.
"Her competitiveness is what makes her special," said head coach Amanda Lehotak. "She just has that grit and that 'it' factor. When she feels she's getting beat she gets better. She's fun to coach because if you push her she's just going to fight harder. I never want her to graduate."
Knief has earned high praises from the conference, her coaches and her teammates for her outstanding 2014 season, but she isn't dwelling on her past successes.
"Last year was last year," said Knief. "I don't really even think about last year. Stats are not relevant to me right now. I'm more worried about how the team is progressing and how we're going to start the season in Boca."
Knief has established herself as a star offensive force on the team and in the conference, but she can't do it by herself. In 2014, the seven other outfielders who saw the field recorded a combined .147 batting average. This year, the team will look to the junior transfer from Akron, Erin Pond, to provide Knief with some offensive assistance.
"What you're going to like about Erin Pond is that she has a little Lexi in her," said Lehotak. "Erin gets stronger when she gets punched in the face by the game. That's what the best athletes are able to do so well. She's going to be a huge asset for us in left field, especially offensively."
Junior Macy Jones is also turning some heads this preseason. Jones started in all but one game last season and recorded 22 RBIs, good for third on the team. However, she was unable to perform as well as she did in her freshman season, so she and coach Lehotak are hoping for a bounce-back year.
"Macy had a great freshman year, but hit the sophomore slump last year," Lehotak said. "Where she is now is far better than where she was all of last year, so we expect Macy to get back in the frame and repeat the freshman year that she had."
Another player to watch for this year is senior Alicia Walker. Walker has taken it upon herself to provide leadership and confidence to the outfield group.
"Personally, I want to improve as a leader," Walker said. "I've never been known as the most verbal leader. I'm more of a lead by example type of player, but as a senior I'm trying to take everyone under my wing and take more control as an outfield leader."
Senior Meghan Bradley, juniors Maegan Tupinio and Shannon Good, sophomore Mary Ward and freshman Mollie Sorenson join Knief, Pond, Jones and Walker. Freshman Rebecca Ziegler would've contributed greatly this year as well if not for a knee injury that knocked her out for the season.
"Everyone in the outfield is doing tremendously well right now," said Knief. "Everyone's working hard, and we got a great group of girls so it's anyone's game out there."
"What's great about our group is that we have a large group of outfielders," Walker said. "We're confident that no matter who's out there, everyone will perform well. Everyone works hard at practice. We're confident that whoever's out there will perform well."
The team begins their 2015 campaign at the Kickoff Tournament in Boca Raton, Fla. Feb. 6-8, where they will play five teams in three days.