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Pacific softball picks up where it left off in 2007

SOFTBALL: A stellar 2007 season has allowed Pacific head softball coach Tim Hill to reposition his program as a powerhouse in the rough-and-tumble Northwest Conference

No home field. No seniors. Eleven neutral site games. Six freshmen in the starting lineup.

With all odds stacked against them, no one would have been surprised if the Pacific softball team had struggled in 2007. Instead, the Boxers excelled in the face of adversity, putting together a 25-13 record, finishing third in the Northwest Conference and landing seven players on the All-NWC Team.

In 2008, the Boxers will open a new and improved softball facility at Lincoln Park and return all but one of those all-conference players, including First Team pitcher Miranda McNealy and senior catcher and team leader Caitlin Mastenbroek.

In other words, the future looks bright.

According to head coach Tim Hill, now in his sixth season, it is all part of the plan to keep improving and return Pacific to its position as a conference power.

'We have gone from 22 wins to 23 to 25,' he said of the Boxers' past three seasons. 'For me, whatever win level we are at becomes our standard of expectation. If we stay healthy, we should equal what we did last year, but our goal will be to improve.'

Pacific will benefit foremost from experience at every position. The Boxers return almost every part of an all-conference infield, including second baseman Kelly Nishitomi and third baseman Brooke Fogwell, plus hard-hitting outfielders Kristen Croxford and Amy Walters, and outstanding pitchers McNealy and Andrea Bansen.

'It's always a nice situation to be in when you have nearly every player back,' Hill said. 'We have basically everyone returning, another year of experience, more confidence and three freshmen are coming in to add depth, so we will be better. I don't know whether we will have a better record because the conference is tougher. But we will be better than we were.'

Pitchers

For the first time since coming to Pacific in 2003, Hill will have the luxury of working with a veteran pitching staff.

McNealy returns after a freshman season that would have been a career year for many pitchers. After losing her first two decisions, McNealy won her next 13 starts, throwing eight shutouts and a no-hitter and leading the conference in earned run average (1.37), opposing batting average (.185) and strikeouts (178).

'Miranda had a great year, and I think she will pick up where she left off,' Hill said. 'She relies mostly on movement and has great location. If she maintains those two things she will do just as well, if not better, than she did last year.'

Bansen, a senior, had the best season of her career in 2007, winning eight games and amassing a 2.47 ERA. She earned All-NWC honors for the first time and should provide the Boxers a solid one-two punch in the pitching circle.

'Andrea is really in a position to have an outstanding season,' Hill said. 'She is pretty dedicated and has made some changes that I think are really going to help her. She's a senior who wants more.'

Sophomore Heather Ritenour made nine appearances as a freshman and will be depended upon in a relief role in addition to seeing time at first base. She finished 2007 with a 3-1 record. Fellow sophomore Melissa Meads also stands in reserve after appearing in 28 games, all in pinch-hitting and pinch-running roles.

Infielders

The Boxers will return what is perhaps the most experienced and talented infield in the conference. Hill returns four of the five starters from a year ago and three with all-conference credentials.

Mastenbroek returns as the most solid defensive catcher in the league. The senior is Pacific's unquestioned emotional leader, not to mention a potent force both offensively and defensively. Her .309 batting average was second-best on the team and she also ranked among the conference leaders in runners caught stealing. The efforts earned her All-NWC honors for the third consecutive season.

'Caitlin has such great value and brings so much to this program,' Hill said. 'She felt like she should have had a better year last year. She is really focused and should have the best year of all of her four years.'

Freshman Brooke Toy will apprentice behind Mastenbroek at the catcher's spot while also seeing time at first base. While unfamiliar to both positions, Toy should be able to adjust well after three years as an all-conference shortstop in high school.

'Brooke lacks experience, but she has all of the physical tools to be a great catcher,' Hill said. 'She's a great athlete who is off to a strong start.'

Nishitomi was solid at second base for the Boxers, committing just four errors in 133 chances. She also performed well offensively, hitting .259 and stealing 16 bases to earn All-NWC honors. Hill said Nishitomi's game improved as she became more comfortable with the college game, evidenced by a .300 batting average in the second half of the season.

'I think you will see Kelly be as good as she was defensively, but she will improve offensively,' Hill said. 'We're adding a little bit to her game offensively, so she should be more productive.'

Sophomore Alicia Hawes will benefit from a year of experience after making solid contributions as a freshman. Hawes started all 38 games at shortstop for the Boxers, but will strive to improve offensively. Freshman Carrie Maerz will bring considerable depth to the middle infield after an all-conference high school career at Newberg.

Fogwell also earned All-NWC honors while becoming the anchor of the infield at third base. The sophomore provides a very solid glove defensively, ranking fourth in the conference in assists. At the plate, Fogwell will continue to be a power broker after hitting .253 with nine extra base hits and four home runs.

'Brooke is the cornerstone of our infield,' Hill said. 'She's going to hit with power in the middle of our lineup and is a real key cog for us. She should be an all-conference performer for all four years.'

Outfielders

Hill is presented with the enviable problem of having too much depth in the outfield. The Boxers have six outfielders on the roster, each with enough talent to vie for significant playing time throughout the course of the season.

'This is the best group of outfielders that we have ever had,' Hill said. 'We won't be going with three people. We will play a lot of people in the outfield and have them sharing time.'

Croxford, a junior, heads the list after two all-conference seasons with the Boxers. The converted catcher has led the Boxers in batting each of the last two years. As a lead-off hitter, Croxford batted .372 with 18 extra base hits, 16 stolen bases and an impressive .503 on-base percentage, second best in the conference.

Hill believes Croxford is in store for her best season ever and would like to find a way to move her around in the lineup.

'She may lead off, but I would like to get her in the middle of the lineup because of those extra base hits,' he said.

Junior Amy Walters returns for her third season and her second as a full-time outfielder. The converted pitcher brings solid defensive credentials as one of nine conference players with a 1.000 fielding percentage.

'Amy will play right field most of the time and is very, very sound,' Hill said. 'She does everything right.'

Senior Kim Whittaker and sophomore Jessie Garcia both saw significant playing time in 2007. Whitaker made 28 starts, primarily in left field, and has adapted well after two seasons as the Boxers' starting shortstop. Garcia started 16 games as a freshman and will see more time as her offense continues to improve. Junior Megan Snelson will play a utility role in both the infield and outfield after appearing in 18 games as a sophomore.

The Boxers add more depth in freshman Stephanie Vanoudenhaegen, a highly skilled outfielder who was an all-state performer her senior year at Glencoe.

'Stephanie brings speed and energy to the top of our lineup as well as to a variety of outfield positions,' Hill said.