Nittany Lions Field Veteran Core, Quality Newcomers for 2008 Campaign
Feb. 4, 2008
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - With the Nittany Lions' fresh off a seventh NCAA appearance in the last eight years and an eighth Big Ten Tournament berth in the last nine, Penn State softball fans have a lot to be excited about in 2008. Familiar faces abound for the Nittany Lions, with some talented new blood joining the line-up as well for head coach Robin Petrini's squad.
"I think the fans can expect that we're going to play an exciting game every time we take the field. We have power, speed, and a solid defense," said Petrini. "Offensively, we've been able to generate our fair share of runs. Last year we produced quite a bit so I would expect our fans to be treated to that kind of offensive production again this season."
The Penn State line-up card this year will be unique in that it will contain two All-Americans for the first time in program history in 2005 third-team pick Ashley Esparza and 2007 second-team selection Danielle Kinley. In addition to those big bats, PSU returns the likes of all-time doubles leader Jen Acunto, catcher Hollee Haines, whose name is on the all-time list for both doubles and homeruns, and Jenn Reynolds, who also has a place on the homeruns list. All three have either been All-Region or All-Big Ten during their Nittany Lion careers, making this year's line-up one of the most decorated in Penn State history.
Several seniors have made themselves fixtures in the Nittany Lion infield. Since her arrival in Happy Valley, Jen Acunto has started every game of her career. PSU fans know they'll see her fielding range and rapid-fire arm at shortstop. They know they'll find consistency behind the plate in the general Hollee Haines, who after three-years as the starter knows her pitching staff as well as anyone in the country. Penn State faithful can expect to see Ashley Esparza at first base when she's not in the circle and even junior Kayce Zielinski has become a familiar sight at second base.
According to Petrini, "In the infield we have a veteran group returning and I'm not quite sure who's going to be where yet. I know that Jen Acunto will be at short and when Ashley Esparza is not pitching she'll be playing first. I know that Kayce will be in the infield somewhere and then we'll have to see what happens from there.
"Shana Madura is the incumbent at third, but Rebecca Bautista is also coming back off an ACL injury. Freshman Desi Giordano is going to add a little pop to our roster, so we'll see where she fits in. Jackie Hill is coming off a broken hand, so we have lots of choices in the infield. We'll see what happens."
Esparza batted a .333 last year despite fighting through an injury, one of several on what became a fairly banged-up pitching staff by NCAAs. Esparza's power numbers continued with 11 doubles, seven homeruns and 21 RBIs en route to a third-team All-Big Ten selection.
Acunto's nine doubles in 2007 propelled her into first place in Penn State history in that category with 39. She also belted a triple, four homeruns and tallied 17 RBI on the year. One of six players with 20 or more RBI's, Haines' 12 doubles were second on the team. She also blasted two homeruns to move up on that Penn State career list.
Zielinski and Madura each started at least 40 games for PSU last season at second and third base, respectively. Madura lit it up vs. Bucknell, slamming home a school-record seven RBIs on two three-run homeruns and an RBI walk. She finished the year with 21 RBI and eight extra base hits.
Zielinski finished with 24 RBI on the year, third best on the Nittany Lion line-up, batting just short of .300 for the year with five homeruns and six doubles.
Bautista returns after an ACL tear last year for a senior campaign that will finish off a career riddled with injuries for the resilient infielder. Hill is also coming back off an injury, a broken bone in her hand suffered early in the season during the Washington game.
Providing depth at catcher behind Haines are junior Christana Crivellaro and freshman Janelle Lukens. Freshman Giordano will most likely see time in the infield while senior Jenn Reynolds will also play a role.
Whatever is decided as far as a line-up goes, the sure bet is that the infield, and particularly its depth this year, will an asset for the Nittany Lions this season.
All-American centerfield anchor Danielle Kinley performed well in her first year in the middle of the outfield and will return there again this season. Confident at the plate and in the field, she's joined by a host of talents that should fill in well beside her.
"We return our veteran group in the outfield as well. We have Danielle Kinley who will definitely be in centerfield. Ashley Griffith anchored left field for us last year and Sam Hovanec has jumped to the outfield this year. We have a couple of incoming freshmen, Mary Ostman and Carnie Smith, who are also going to be competing for opportunities. The outfield has a little more depth than we've had in the past, which will keep people on their toes fighting to get into the line-up," said Petrini.
Kinley led the team in hitting last season with a .375 average (57-152) and earned All-Big Ten and All-Region honors on top of her All-America nod. Kinley was on her game from opening weekend, earning player of the week honors after breaking the school's mark for hits in a game with five against North Carolina.
Speedy freshman Griffith batted .315 last year, third among returners, and was 10-of-12 on stolen base attempts. Hovanec moves primarily to an outfield role this season and sophomore Danielle Noll will provide depth as well. Additionally, Ostman and Smith will be in the mix for playing time.
A veteran core returns in the circle for Penn State with seniors Ashley Esparza and Jenn Reynolds joined by sophomore Kimi Wong and redshirt-freshman Jackie Hill. The PSU pitching staff held strong last year despite a significant impact from injuries, some season-ending.
"I think the pitching staff should be one of our strengths this year," said Petrini. "Last year, we just got banged up by injuries so providing that people remain healthy, I think our pitching staff will be the backbone."
"Ashley Esparza had a great season last year although she was battling injuries off and on. I expect Kimi Wong to step up this year. She's had a great fall for us and I hope to see her give us a little bit more production. Jackie Hill's coming back off of her broken hand, so well see how she develops. Then JR (Jenn Reynolds), who struggled a little at the onset of the beginning of last year, found her groove toward the very end of the season, so we expect her to have a great senior campaign."
Esparza has started 23 games as a Nittany Lion and had a career-high 166 strikeouts during the 2007 season. With a career ERA of 1.80, she's looking for a great season after returning from last year's injury.
Reynolds, the staff's other veteran, has a 1.61 ERA and also had a career-high for strikeouts last season with 154. Reynolds has had 10 or more wins her last two years and should continue to have a large impact this season.
An early-season broken bone in her hand sidelined Jackie Hill last season, but the California-native returns with four years of eligibility remaining. After a great fall effort, sophomore Kimi Wong should round-out a deeper-then-usual staff for Petrini and pitching coach Jocelyn Forrest.
"Now that Coach Forest is in her second year she understands my philosophy much better, she understands the routine of our team and our practices and she is more familiar with the personnel of our pitching staff," stated Petrini. "As a result, I expect that's going to be a little behind-the-scenes plus for our season."
A perennial NCAA participant, Penn State always packs its schedule with some tough competition and 2008 is no different. After beginning with a tournament at Texas that also features Michigan and Cal State Fullerton, the Nittany Lions meet LSU at its tournament before hitting Florida for spring break and then opening the challenging conference season at the end of March.
"We open up against what I would consider all top 25 opponents; Texas, Cal State Fullerton, and Michigan. Then we eventually go down to LSU. I'm excited to take the team back down to Baton Rouge and have exposure to playing the SEC. We're taking our spring break trip to Florida and we'll see some solid competition while we're there. After including the always tough Big Ten, it's a highly competitive, well-rounded schedule for us again this year," said Petrini.
Penn State looks to figure greatly into the Big Ten mix this season and has made the conference tournament for eight of the past nine years.
"The conference this year is interesting. I think the Big Ten is really wide open. Everybody is trying to get to the top, so I think throw out the dice and see what happens," said Petrini. "Everybody's going to have to build upon what they learned about their teams during the non-conference season and apply that when we play each other. It's always a fight."
But with a host of veterans to lead the Nittany Lions in 2008, it's a fight the Nittany Lions are no doubt ready to take on.