Softball starts NCAAs in Amherst

Stanford. Lehigh. Princeton. And host Massachusetts? It's certainly not a traditional softball bracket, but it's one Stanford must tackle in the NCAA Regionals, starting with a Lehigh match Friday. Contributing writer Rebecca Harlow provides a season summary and a scouting report.

After an up-and-down regular season and fourth-place Pac-10 showing, Stanford softball now has its eye on a bigger prize: the NCAA Tournament, set to begin Friday. The12th-seeded Cardinal (46-12, 11-10 Pac-10) are looking for their first trip to the Women's College World Series since 2004.

Stanford is in the Amherst, Mass. Regional, where its first opponent will be Lehigh. In the double elimination bracket, host University of Massachusetts will face Princeton in the other first-round matchup.

Three-time Pac-10 Pitcher of the Week Missy Penna, a junior, comes into the postseason on a hot streak, having broken three school records in a single night, an upset of then-No. 2 ASU. Her 34 wins and 372 strikeouts in 2008 are single-season bests, while her 17 strikeouts in the 10-inning thriller are a single-game best for any Stanford pitcher.

Though the Cardinal dropped a pair of games to No. 7 Arizona following that win, the team still took fourth in the conference, with only top-10 teams ahead of them.

After a 32-2 preseason, Stanford hit a slump early in the conference season, losing five straight Pac-10 games. But the Cardinal rebounded with seven consecutive victories and won four of its last six to close out the conference season.

Penna has been Stanford's ace in the circle, amassing a 34-10 record, and freshman Ashley Chinn boasts 11 wins in 13 decisions. The pair have combined to hold opponents to a .170 batting average on the season.

Sophomore catcher Rosey Neill, twice named Pac-10 Player of the Week, leads the Cardinal batters with 49 RBI and 18 homeruns on the season, on a .348 batting average. Centerfielder Alissa Haber, also a sophomore, has been Stanford's most consistent hitter with a team-high .380 average. Senior third baseman Michelle Smith and junior shortstop Maddy Coon are second behind Neill with 40 and 38 RBI, respectively, and eight homers each.

The Cardinal's first opponent, Lehigh (38-15-1), earned an automatic NCAA bid by winning the Patriot League title for the ninth time in a decade. Though the tendency is to overlook small-conference teams, the Mountain Hawks are used to playing David rather well, knocking then-No. 13 Texas A&M out of the tournament in the 2004 first round. Pitcher Lisa Sweeney, the league tournament MVP, is 25-4 with a 1.54 ERA. She is also the team's top hitter, with a .416 batting average, 13 homers and 46 RBI, all team highs.

Princeton (25-22) was also an automatic qualifier, despite losing 17 of 20 before league play. The Tigers completely turned their season around, going 18-2 in conference and defeating Harvard for the Ivy League crown. Kelsey Quist has a team-high .358 average and is second on the roster with 37 RBI. Jamie Lettire leads with 40 RBI and 14 homeruns, with a team-best 3.13 ERA and 8-3 record in the circle. Kristen Schaus is the Tigers' top strikeout pitcher, boasting 180 strikeouts. The preseason hurt Schaus' record, which stands at just 10-15 overall.

Princeton will face the host Minutewomen in the first round. UMass (39-11) comes into the playoffs on a 29-game winning streak and the Atlantic-10 title. Brandice Balschmiter was the Most Outstanding Player at the conference tournament and has a 28-6 record and 0.54 ERA. On the offensive side, Sarah Reeves leads the team with nine homeruns and 36 RBI. Reeves was one of three UMass players to join Balschmiter on the All-Tournament team, along with Whitney Williams and Lindsay Maroney.

Stanford and Lehigh kick things off in Amherst on Friday afternoon, followed by Princeton and UMass. The Regional will be in the double-elimination format, with the winner determined Sunday afternoon. The champion of the Amherst Regional will advance to the Super Regional to face No. 5 Texas A&M if the seedings hold.

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