Softball Tigers To Tangle With Tide In SEC Tourney

The Tigers will take a school record for wins and their higest ever ranking into Tuscaloosa to face Alabama in the first round of the SEC Softball Tournament on Thursday.

Auburn, Ala.--The 2004 version of the Auburn softball team has already proven itself to be the best in school history.

Racking up an unprecedented 39 wins against only 14 losses that includes series wins over archrivals Georgia and Alabama at home, as well as taking wins from their highest ranked opponents in history by splitting double headers with both second ranked LSU and second ranked Florida State, the Tigers are in a good position heading into the SEC Tournament.

Along with those accomplishments, the Tigers received their first ever national ranking in 2004 and are heading into postseason play ranked 12th by the National Fastpitch Coaches Association poll and 14th by the ESPN/USA today poll.

The Tigers will begin that postseason run on Thursday night in the SEC tournamen. Auburn, as the number four seed, will face homestanding Alabama, the fifth seed, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. The winner of that game will take on the winner of the LSU (#1 seed) and South Carolina (#8) game on Friday in the double elimination tournament.

Head coach Tina Deese says that she has noticed quite a few factors contributing to her team's success throughout this memorable season. "I think we are very talented, much more so this year than some of the past years," Deese explains. "I think the leadership that we have had has contributed in big, strong ways. We have good strong leadership and that leadership has carried us a long way--through the ups and downs and through the good stuff as well as the bad. I think between those two things we have managed to maintain a good chemistry, which of course tends to bring on good things."

The coach also notes that her decision to back off of her expectations for herself and her team this year seems to have made a big difference in the results on the field. "It has been a lot of fun, which is kind of one of the goals I set this year," she says. "I wanted to have a bit of fun with it. Have fun with the girls. Let the girls be college girls and that kind of thing. I think I may have set my expectations so high that nobody could live up to them so I was kind of backing off a little bit and just wanted to have some fun with it."

One of the biggest keys for the Tigers' success in terms of talent has come from the pitching circle and specifically from Kristen Keyes. The senior from Clearwater, Florida has rewritten the Auburn record books in her career and leads the Tigers in almost every statistical category from the mound in both career and single season records, including appearances, complete games, wins, earned run average and strikeouts.

In 2004 the senior has been stellar, compiling a 24-9 record with a 1.03 earned run average. In her 203 innings of work the senior has only allowed 39 runs, 30 of those being earned and 30 walks, all while striking out an Auburn record 268 hitters.

Deese says that Keyes has had a dramatic effect on the Tigers' program and not only in the win column. "When she came in she dominated our pitching statistics. She pretty much--in terms of what we brought to the mound--she was more of a dominating pitcher than anything we have ever seen. She has proved herself as a dominating pitcher. That has been huge. With Kristen and the success we have achieved since her first year here we were able to get the Holly Curries (pitcher), Beth DePietros (pitcher) and Kristina McCains (third base), kids that have been big for us this year. So, in the whole scheme of recruiting, I think Kristen has helped with the class that we have here on hand.

Deese also notes that the emergence of Keyes and her freshmen counterparts on the mound, Holly Currie and Beth DePietro, have led to a new style of Auburn softball. "If you look back at some of the statistics, the records and some stuff like that, we have come full circle," the coach says. "We used to be a team that had no pitching and we had to score seven or eight runs in a ball game.

"We were loaded offensively, but we lacked someone on the mound and some defense," she continued. "And of course if you look at the statistics this year we have come full circle. We got the pitching as well as the defense and our hitting is still adequate--we are getting timely hits and that kind of thing."

Along with strong pitching the Tigers have also relied heavily on strong fielding throughout their historical run. As a team Auburn is fielding .973 on the season, which is tied for second in the SEC with Georgia, and has only committed 18 errors.

Strangely for Auburn a large part of that fielding performance has fallen on the shoulders of three freshmen. At third base Kristina McCain has been strong with only three errors in 76 attempts. In left field Lauren Walton has been perfect, fielding 1.000 percent this season for the Tigers, and in right Sara Ghezzi has only committed two errors.

Deese says that she has been impressed with all three freshmen that are playing in the field for her team. "I think all three of them have been big pleasant surprises," she explains. "McCain without a doubt after seeing her play--I saw her play all last year and through the summers as well so I knew she was good. I mean, I really knew she was good. I felt like down the road she has got All-SEC potential and things like that, but I had no idea taking her out of position from shortstop to third that she would have such a defensive impact.

Kristina McCain

"Sara Ghezzi, I had seen her out on the recruiting trail and I knew she could hit the ball and hit the ball solid," Deese notes. "Defense, we weren't so sure, but she has maintained that right field position very well. I mean she keeps the ball in front, she plays the ball and she has done a great job. I am very impressed--she has got a really strong arm.

"Lauren has been a huge surprise coming in," the coach says. "In terms of watching her at the plate and to see her warm up and some of the things she looks like a passive player, but once we got her out on the field and saw her diving for balls. She has no hesitation about getting on her belly and she does a great job there. She has got incredible reads on the ball and offensively that kid is going to do nothing but get better. She has got to get used to the pitching and has to get a little bit more aggressive at the plate, but her role right now is defense and she is doing a very solid job in that role."

At the plate the Tigers are solid, hitting .265 as team, which is sixth in the SEC. Sara Dean leads the team at .370 with a team-leading 30 RBI and five home runs, which is tied with shortstop Ashley Griffin for the team lead. Martha Phillips is also strong at the plate for the Tigers. She is only hitting .255, but is second on the team with 28 RBI and four homers.

One change that has paid off for the Tigers at the plate was moving Griffin, who is hitting .271, but with only a .292 on base percentage, down to the five hole from the leadoff role and placing McCain, who hits .269 with a .377 on base percentage, into the leadoff slot.

"I am real excited about how well it has worked and there was a lot of hesitation on my part as well as (assistant coach) Mike's (Perniciaro) part because Ashley can get on fire, but Ashley was slumping and I needed to do something," Deese explains. "So we needed something and Kristina was making her mark offensively and with her being a left handed hitter and Shannon Anderson (center field) hitting behind her, she has been a good contact hitter. She sees the ball very well from the left side. She really is a good leadoff hitter and she a perfect leadoff hitter being left handed and I think you are going to see more of that in the future."

Since the move both McCain and Griffin have flourished in their new roles. Both McCain's batting average and on base percentage have risen sharply since the transition and Griffin has knocked in game winning RBIs against Alabama and LSU from the five slot.

Still despite all of the wins and records up to this point, Coach Deese explains that she knows none of that matters now that it is time for postseason play and she says she and her team have their sights set on some lofty goals.

"We know we have got a hard road ahead," the coach notes. "It is going to take winning five or six ballgames to win the SEC. Do we have the potential to do it? Yes. It is going to take outstanding pitching performances to get it done. We are going to have to have solid defense like we have had all year and we are going to have to have some timely hitting."

As for Auburn's first round match-up with the Crimson Tide in their home ballpark, Deese says that her team will go in knowing exactly what to expect. "We know we are up against a big battle with their big sticks," the coach explains. "They have got a good solid offensive lineup. We are going to have to put the ball in play, challenge their defense consistently, run hard and again get key hits. We are going to have to outscore them. At this point in the season you can't expect your pitchers to be throwing shutouts, especially when Alabama has probably seen her 15 times."

As for Keyes, she says she is looking forward to the first round match-up following a tough outing, which resulted in a loss against the Tide in the third game of the regular season series. "I am ready for it," the senior says emphatically. "I had two good outings against them in the series and that last one I kind of had one bad inning. I had one bad outing in one bad inning and I just definitely want to come out and redeem myself, especially against Alabama. This is my senior year and I would like to come out on top."


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