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Feb. 7, 2012
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The 2012 Nittany Lion softball season brings with it a new batch of expectations in addition to the attainable goal of a top Big Ten finish and an NCAA Tournament bid. Last season, Penn State earned its eighth bid to the NCAA Tournament in the last 12 seasons, hosting postseason games for the first time in 28 years. Nevertheless, this team wants more.
"The season is always long," Co-captain and senior catcher Danee Collett (Rogersville, Tenn.) noted. "Just knowing that we made it to postseason and that we hosted, it was just an extra boost of energy, just what we needed. It set our expectations that we know can make it and do it again and hopefully go further."
The Nittany Lions have the fortune of returning the bulk of its producers from a year ago, as eight starters will blend with a new crop of talented freshman in 2012. As part of that experienced core features three All-Big Ten honorees from a year ago, including three-time All-Big Ten and CoSIDA Academic All-District II First Team member Lisa Akamine (Escondido, Calif.).
A do-everything player, Akamine stepped up into one of the most consistent pitchers in the Big Ten last year, turning in a career best 1.89 ERA and a .193 average against. Akamine is moving up the record charts at Penn State, currently fifth in strikeouts (411), sixth in innings pitched (421.0) and starts (61), seventh in appearances (84), and ninth in complete games (34). She also was Penn State's fourth-best hitter according to average and RBI.
While PSU enjoys a veteran leader as its No. 1 in the circle, the Nittany Lions return its top seven hitters from a year ago led by juniors Cassidy Bell (Bakersfield, Calif.) and Kailyn Johnson (Yorba Linda, Calif.). Bell received All-Big Ten Second Team laurels in 2011, leading the team in nearly every major offensive category. The lead-off batter and co-captain, Bell hit .280 with a team-high 31 runs scored, 51 hits, 15 doubles, three triples, seven home runs, eight stolen bases and a .511 slugging percentage. Bell's hitting and speed is important to PSU's offense, her defense can't go unnoticed with six outfield assists and making spectacular catches in centerfield.
Bell's counterpart, Johnson, came on late in the year, forcing teams to either walk her (35 BB, .470 on-base percentage) or let her swing away (.326 average overall, .392 in Big Ten play). Johnson is a .296 lifetime hitter with 19 doubles, nine homers and 49 RBI, while playing a superb first base (.986 fielding percentage in 2011).
Penn State's third returning All-Big Ten player is sophomore Alyssa Sovereign (La Canada, Calif.) who was second on the team in doubles (nine) and third in homers (five), while knocking in 26 runs. An excellent outfielder in her own right, Sovereign didn't commit an error all season while gunning down six runners in her first season in Happy Valley.
Another sophomore set to make an impact in the lineup is Kasie Hatfield (Tampa, Fla.). Hatfield, who divided her time between catcher and third base, had 29 hits, six doubles, a triple and a home run in her initial campaign. The youngster was solid behind the plate and at the hot corner with a .992 fielding percentage to help the Nittany Lion cause.
Junior second baseman Lauren Yao (Los Angeles, Calif.) had another strong Big Ten season, finding her stride in April and May. Yao had four doubles and a home run during conference action after leading the team her freshman year (.321) during the same 20-game stretch. A quick fielder, Yao tracked down some spectacular plays as she played 54 of the 56 games at second in 2011.
Penn State will be looking for a bounce back season from Collett. The catcher and designated player had a tough 2011 after a career year her sophomore year in 2010. Collett is threat for extra-base hits as shown by her 12-double, five-home run effort two years ago, leading the team in slugging percentage (.469).
PSU is settled at shortstop with junior Alyssa Renwick (Laurens, S.C.) returning to her normal spot. Renwick is a quick player who has started all but one game in her career at short. Renwick's classmate, Shannon Hutchinson (Sewell, N.J.) will look to lock down the left field position. She platooned in the outfield for part of last year, hitting occasionally, but appearing in 50 games, mostly as a pinch-hitter.
Penn State has some experience coming off the bench as well including seniors Ashley Todd (Mill Creek, Wash.), who will fight for starting time at third, and Ellen McNair (Niceville, Fla.) and Morgan Long (Oro Valley, Ariz.), both of whom are pinch-hitting options. McNair could see time behind the dish and Long has seen time at second base during her sophomore year.
As for other options in the circle, sophomore Jordan Wheatley (Troy, Mich.) and freshman Marissa Diescher (Livingston Manor, N.Y.) will complement Akamine's experience and talent. Wheatley saw limited time last season behind Akamine and All-Big Ten Second Team pitcher Jackie Hill, while Diescher is a highly touted newcomer who won a New York state championship as a high school senior.
Junior Rachel Myers (Millheim, Pa.) returns in her utility role of pinch-running, pitching and outfield play. Sophomore catcher Liz Presto (Bethlehem, Pa.) is another option off the bench as a pinch-hitter, too.
PSU welcomes five newcomers in all including Diescher. Lauren Anderson (Valencia, Calif.) is a big bat who can play anywhere in the infield and at catcher, while Alicia Walker (Los Alamitos, Calif.) is a speedy player who will serve a utility role in 2012. Mackenzie Liss (Mountainside, N.J.) has power-hitting ability and Meghan Bradley (Santa Monica, Calif.) is a reserve outfielder.
The Nittany Lions will face a challenging schedule right off the bat facing two ranked and perennial NCAA Tournament teams in LSU and Michigan starting Friday at the Tiger Classic. Also at the tournament is WAC contender Louisiana Tech.
Penn State's schedule features 15 games against nine opponents who went to the NCAA Tournament a year ago including ranked teams in Louisiana-Lafayette (Mar. 16) and Women's College World Series participant Oklahoma (Mar. 16). Other NCAA teams on the schedule are Notre Dame (Feb. 25), Auburn (Mar. 4), Fresno State (Mar. 17), BYU (Mar. 17) and Indiana (Apr. 14-15). PSU also travels to Michigan for a three-game Big Ten series (Mar. 24-25) to open the conference slate.
Although Penn State is on the road for the first 30 games of the year, the Lions will play 16 of its final 24 games at its $10.2 million state-of-the-art Nittany Lion Softball Park. In April alone, Penn State hosts a 10-game home stand from Apr. 3 (Pittsburgh DH) to Apr. 15 (Indiana) that highlights the month where 13-of-19 games are at Beard Field. PSU winds its conference season down with rival Ohio State (May 11-12) for what will hopefully be another important series in guiding Penn State to its ninth NCAA appearance since 2000, as well as a chance to host NCAA Regional competition for the second straight year.