NCAA Softball Preview – Columbia Regional

The NCAA Softball tournament kicks off in Columbia, Missouri on Friday with the DePaul Blue Demons facing Indiana.'s Mike Wojtychiw previews the Columbia regional in this report.

Missouri – The Tigers come into the postseason after winning the Big 12 outright. For the first time, the Big 12 did not have a conference tournament, so whoever won the regular season title would win the league's automatic berth. While the team didn't have as rough of a preseason schedule as last year, it set itself up nicely to prepare themselves for what turned out to be a rugged Big 12 season. After losing to Alabama in the South Florida tournament, the Tigers rattled off 24 wins, including wins against six NCAA teams.

The Tigers feature an impressive eight players who are hitting .312 or above. The eight are mostly the team's regular starters, but coach Ehren Earleywine has been known to switch his lineup around. Junior Ashley Fleming leads the powerful Missouri offense with a .372 average, 12 home runs and 55 RBI, all of which are team highs. She is tied with Jenna Marston for the doubles lead with 15. Senior Rhea Taylor has been a presence at the top of the lineup throughout her four years in a Tiger uniform and is a terror on the basepaths. The speedster has stolen 34 bases this year and 175 in her career, which is a school and Big 12 record. Nicole Hudson has knocked 11 balls out of the park and driven in 44 runs. Catherine Lee has 27 RBI, Marla Schweisberger 25, Maddison Ruggeberg 23 and Princess Krebs 21. The team as a whole has stolen 86 of 99 bases and outscored their opponents 311-84.

The reason the team has such a great run differential, besides their offense, is that their pitching rotation has been very impressive. Sophomore Chelsea Thomas has recovered nicely from a season-ending injury last year and gone 27-5 with a 0.85 ERA. She has struck out 284 more batters than she has walked (323-39) and hitters are hitting 1.45 against her. After becoming the team's ace last season and leading them to the Women's College World Series after Thomas went down with her injury, Kristin Nottelmann hasn't been relied on as much but she's been just as impressive, going 15-1 with a 1.51 ERA. She has struck out 113 batters, while walking only 29.

Indiana – After a rough 16-12 start to the season, the Hoosier seemed to right the ship in Big Ten play. After an April 2nd loss to Michigan, Indiana rattled off 15 wins until it suffered a defeat to the Northwestern Wildcats.

Sara Olson leads a balanced Indiana offense with a .338 average. She also leads the team in home runs with eight and 34 RBI. Breanna Saucedo is second on the team with a .333 average, while also leading the team with 14 stolen bases. Saucedo does also lead the team in hits with 60. Cassie Gogreeve is second on the team in RBI with 23.

Morgan Melloh is the Hoosier's horse in the circle having started 45 of the teams' 53 games. She has compiled a 32-15 record, while also having a 1.62 ERA. Because of the amount of innings and games she has thrown, her strikeout total is out of the roof. She has fanned 477 opponents.

DePaul – This is the 14th time DePaul has qualified for the NCAA Championship tournament in the last 15 years. This is also the third year in a row the team has gone to Columbia (Mo.) to play in the Missouri Regional. DePaul has faced both Indiana and Illinois State this season and come away with victories. In fact they played 13 teams from the NCAA Tournament this year and have gone 7-10 against them. The Blue Demons had an impressive streak where between April 9th and May 5th, they won 16 consecutive games.

Kirsten Verdun has been all of what Coach Eugene Lenti could have asked for and more in her freshman campaign. She is one of seven regulars hitting over.300 and leads the team with 11 home runs and 42 RBI. No other Blue Demon has more than five homers. Samantha Dodd leads the team in doubles with 10, is second with five home runs and 32 RBI and has stolen 10 bases, also second on the team. Alex Morocco leads the squad in hits with 67 and steals with 13.

Last season, Verdun had one of the best high school seasons in Illinois state history. She finished a state-record 40-0, had an ERA of 0.30 and 480 strikeouts, the fourth-highest in state history. This on the way to being named State Player of the Year and leading her team to a state title. In her freshman year, she seems to have adapted quite well, quickly rising to be the Demons' ace. Verdun has a record of 22-2 going into the postseason, with an ERA of 2.24. She's also struck out 134 batters. Lindsey Dean and Bree Brown have also been used in the circle. Dean has an 10-6 record with a 1.80 ERA, while Brown has a record of 6-4.

Illinois State – Illinois State will make back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances for the second time in program history, as the Redbirds also earned consecutive trips in 2006 and 2007. ISU will be looking to win its first NCAA Tournament game since 2007. With this year's at-large selection, the Redbirds will be making their eighth trip to the NCAA Tournament and will join DePaul, Indiana and Missouri in the four-team regional. ISU is 0-4 against its regional opponents this season, dropping three games to the Tigers and one to DePaul.

In the power bats of Abby Olson and Elizabeth Kay, the Redbirds feature two players who have each knocked 18 balls out of the yard. Kay also leads the team with 43 RBI, while Olson has a team-high 10 doubles and 36 RBI. Kara Nelson leads the squad with a .406 average, has a team high 74 hits and also has 10 doubles.

Megan Warner and Jordan Birch are two more pitchers who have seen about equal time in the circle, with Birch seeing action in 29 games and Warner 28. Their ERA's are similar as well, as Warner has a 2.76, while Birch has one of 2.89. However, Birch does have more wins (17 to 14) and strikeouts (163-96).

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