This week's TEAM LMU Game of the Week will be Thursday's women's basketball WBCA PinkZone game to raise Breast Cancer Awareness. The purpose of TEAM LMU is to bring Lion fans together as one, creating an atmosphere that helps build the Lions into champions, while allowing all to enjoy the benefits of our corporate partners. For more information about TEAM LMU, log on to www.LMULions.com/teamlmu.
Dynasties are built through hard work, recruiting, and a little luck. For the past seven years, LMU has utilized all three to establish itself as a force to be reckoned with in the Pacific Coast Softball Conference. The Lions won three of the conference's first five regular season titles since the conference was founded in 2003 and made NCAA Tournament appearances in 2005 and 2007. Now, however, with new faces on the field and in the PCSC, LMU's dynasty is threatened, meaning that it is more important than ever for the Lions to use hard work, recruiting, and luck to stay on top.
The biggest change off the field heading into the 2010 season is the major facelift in the PCSC. This year marks the dawn of a new era in the PCSC as the traditional six-team format that has existed since its inception in 2003 instantly expands to 12 teams. LMU, Sacramento State, Portland State, Saint Mary's, San Diego, and Santa Clara remain members but they are now joined by six other schools as the conference splits into two divisions. Into the fray come Cal State Bakersfield, Northern Colorado, Weber State, Seattle University, Idaho State, and Utah Valley, with the six California teams representing the Coastal Division and the six others comprising the Mountain Division. Another layer has been added as the winners of each division will play each other in the best-of-three PCSC Championship Series in May for the right to go to the NCAA Tournament.
In addition to having to adjust to the new conference structure, LMU will also have to adjust to life without four major cogs in its championship machine. The 2009 senior class of Megan Ackerman, MiaSarah Cesena, Kirsten Slouber, Chelsie Tysdal combined to win nine All-PCSC awards and lift the Lions to their first-ever NCAA Tournament victories. The quartet's abilities at the plate are unparalleled in LMU history - Slouber graduated as the school's all-time hits leader while Ackerman and Tysdal were second and third, respectively, in career home runs. Still, like any dynasty, LMU has retooled its lineup and while the faces may be different, the expectations and goals are the same - a PCSC championship.
To get the Lions their fourth conference title in eight years, Head Coach Gary Ferrin is counting on a bounce-back year for the LMU pitching staff. The Lions have traditionally been one of the most dominant in the conference in ERA and opponents' batting average, two statistical categories that are key to victories. Last year, however, Melissa Dykema and Corie Goodman both battled injuries and the Lions, who relied solely on their two right arms, sank to third in ERA (3.44) and fifth in opponents' batting average (.299). The pitchers' struggles permeated through the rest of the team as the defense was forced to make more plays and the offense tried to do too much to out-slug the opposition. In 2010, however, both Dykema and Goodman are expected to be healthy and Ferrin has brought in some more arms to give the Lion hurlers some depth.
"Our success this year will be all about pitching," Ferrin said. "The first key was to get Melissa and Corie healthy. Having your two front-line starters playing at less than 100% will take a toll on everyone and a lack of depth meant that we were trotting out injured players because we had no replacements. On the other hand, having both at full-strength makes us contenders again."
Leading the charge is the senior, Dykema. The 2007 PCSC co-Freshman of the Year when she won 26 games, Dykema's arm troubles last year limited her ability to throw with any sort of velocity and her strikeout numbers dropped from 201 in 2007 to 72 in 2009 and she won just 11 games. Dykema spent the past offseason resting and strengthening her arm, determined to lead LMU back to the postseason and restore herself as one of the top pitchers in the PCSC.
"Melissa is our backbone, our senior captain," Ferrin said. "As a team, we will go as far as she can carry us. This year, I see a real focus and determination in her to have a big year. She knows how much her personal success will dictate the team's success and is ready to accept that challenge."
Also ready for the challenge is Goodman, who led the staff last year as a freshman with 13 wins and 89 strikeouts. Much like Dykema, however, she has dealt with injuries that prohibited fans from seeing her at her best last year. Also like Dykema, she is healthy in 2010 and poised to have a breakout season.
"Corie has the tools to carry us," Ferrin said. "We need her to be healthy and have a big year like Melissa. Having those two at 100% completely changes the dynamic of how we play."
Ferrin cites two major factors in determining the team's success in 2010. The first is the bounce back in pitching health. The second is the team's ability to overcome the offensive losses of Ackerman, Tysdal, Slouber, and Cesena. While that might seem like a momentous challenge on paper, Ferrin is confident that his current team has the tools and depth to make that happen.
"We definitely lost power in the departure of Megan and Chelsie but I truly believe that top-to-bottom, our lineup this year is just as potent," Ferrin said. "Overall, I think we gained some in hitting for average and our team speed is definitely improved. What we truly need is for our freshmen to produce and for our veterans to return to the form that they have previously displayed."
Ferrin highlights two seniors that he would love to see put up numbers that they have in the past. Rightfielder J.J. Hartung and first baseman Christine Foley both own .400-plus average seasons but tapered off in recent years. Hartung had a breakout 2008 in which she hit .405 to earn First Team All-PCSC honors as a third baseman but her average fell almost 150 points last year as she switched to the outfield. While she might not hit .400 again, Ferrin would gladly accept somewhere between the two as she brings so much more to the table."
"J.J. is an offensive leader and our defensive star," Ferrin said. "Switching her to the outfield improved our defense as J.J.'s speed enables her to track down balls and turn potential doubles into singles and potential hits into outs. Her strong arm also added another dimension [she led the team with nine outfield assists] and made teams think twice about running on her."
After announcing her arrival on the collegiate scene with a .416 average in 2007, Foley faced two difficult years that saw her production, and playing time, greatly reduced. Ferrin sees the same spark that Foley possessed as a freshman now that she is a senior and is impressed with her new energy and committment.
Fifth-year senior Darcy Pagnini is another player to whom Ferrin is turning for leadership and output. Ferrin loves Pagnini's versatility as he can use her at catcher, third base, or first base, while also hitting her in any number of positions in the lineup. The most tenured player on the squad, Pagnini is also the team's active leader in hits, doubles, and runs batted in.
"Darcy gives us great leadership through her self-confidence and abilities at and behind the plate," Ferrin said. "She can show the freshmen a lot about the way to play and act just by doing it herself."
The three members of this year's junior class are also expected to be firm contributors if the Lions are to regain their place atop the standings. Second baseman Amy Charpentier started her career with a .328 freshman year but then suffered the dreaded sophomore slump by hitting .198 in 2009. Charpentier's strengths lie in her energy and blue-collar work ethic, which stand out mostly when she is able to get on base. A return to her 2008 form would give the Lions another dimension on the basepaths.
Two other juniors, Jennifer Nayudu and Priscilla Satete, are poised to step out of the shadows of Slouber and Cesena and claim starting outfield spots after two years of seeing limited time. The question for Ferrin is whether or not they are ready to seize those roles.
"Jennifer has as much athletic talent as anyone on our team. She has a strong arm and above-average power from the left side," Ferrin said. "Priscilla also has the tools at the plate to be a starter but have yet to prove that they are capable of producing in games."
Ferrin has almost as many players in his sophomore class (six) as he does upperclassmen, so naturally he sees the sophomores as being integral to the team's success. In addition to Goodman in the circle, the Lions have several potent bats, most notably those belonging to All-PCSC performers Sam Fischer and Kelly Sarginson.
There is very little else that Fischer could have done as a freshman, having led the team in batting average (.360), hits (62), and runs scored (37), while also contributing nine doubles and 11 home runs. A third baseman last season, Fischer moves over to her natural shortstop post to replace Ackerman this year. That move, as subtle as it sounds, should pay dividends according to Ferrin.
"Having Sam at shortstop makes us a better infield all-around," Ferrin said. "She is more comfortable in that role, which makes those around her more comfortable as well. I expect to see our team defensive numbers pick up and don't expect any sort of drop-off in Sam's stats at the plate."
Adding power to the lineup is Sarginson, who crushed eight home runs and drove in 31 runs last year as a designated hitter/first baseman. Now that she has a year of collegiate ball behind her, Sarginson looks to be the next in a long line of Lion power hitters, taking over from Ackerman and Tysdal.
The rest of the sophomore class - Kylie Ahlo, Stephanie Hughes, and Brittany Pereda - are eyeing the 2010 season as a chance to show what they can do. Ahlo saw plenty of time last year as a pinch-runner, utilizing her speed to score 16 runs in just 30 games. Pereda hit .273 in 14 games, including eight starts, and can play a variety of positions. Ferrin sees the challenge for them not in finding a way onto the field but in securing one place for them to play.
"Both Kylie and Brittany are athletic enough and talented enough to play multiple positions," Ferrin said. "They are both trained as infielders but I can see them playing anywhere. They will need to be on the field so it is up to me to find a place for them."
Hughes saw limited action as freshmen but will be eager to show what she can do. Besides Pagnini, Hughes is the only Lion catcher to have any collegiate experience, having appeared in three games last year. That could put her in a good position to platoon with Pagnini behind the plate. Pereda made eight starts as a freshman and can play in the outfield or give the Lions another powerful right-handed bat off the bench.
With an eye to continuing the LMU dynasty, Ferrin has hit the recruiting trail hard to bring in six talented freshmen. Pitchers Molly Medeiros and Erica Grady give the Lions depth in the circle and not just if Dykema and Goodman struggle. 3Ferrin feels that the addition of Medeiros gives him the luxury of having three front-line starters, something rare at the mid-major level. In Grady, Ferrin gets a fourth arm that has made considerable progress in the fall. A team captain at Xavier College Prep in Phoenix, Grady has the ability to jump in and eat up innings when necessary.
Ferrin has also brought in two infielders, a catcher, and an outfielder to be a part of LMU's future. Skylar Segura was Second Team All-State out of Chino Hills High School and gives the Lions a solid glove and bat at third. Segura so much wanted to come to LMU that she switched to third base in her senior season to assure herself of a shot at starting, and then went out and hit .475 as a senior.
With Pagnini and Hughes as the only returning backstops, Ferrin went out and got two players who can fill in behind the plate. Olivia Alvarez is a versatile player who can feature at first base or catcher, having led North High School in Torrance to back-to-back CIF-SS Divisional Championships. A two-time ESPN All-State player, Ferrin sees Alvarez as another athletic player who will find her way onto the field. Jennifer Olivares hit .319 as a senior at St. Lucy's Priory High School in Glendora, giving the Lions four servicable catchers.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for Ferrin in the fall came in the form of outfielder Danielle Smith. A two-time league MVP at San Pasqual High School in Escondido, Smith reminds Ferrin of another speedy centerfielder he used to have by the name of Kirsten Slouber.
"Danielle is easily the fastest player on the team and covers so much ground in the outfield," Ferrin said. "Much of what she does is instinctive and can't be taught - her ability to get a jump on the ball off the bat and her supreme confidence that she will track down anything hit anywhere near her."
As for the schedule in 2010, LMU will face many early tests as it prepares for the revamped PCSC season. The Lions open the year by playing 14 of their first 15 games away from home, starting at the Sportco Kick-Off Classic February 12-14 in which they will face a variety of local and national opponents in UC Davis, Kent State, Long Beach State, Illinois, and hosts UNLV.
The road trips are broken up on February 23 with a single-game visit from Hawai'i. Then it's back on the road, where nationally-ranked foes await at Fullerton's Demarini Invitational March 5-7. LMU will face UC Davis for a second time, then take on Oregon State, preseason #3 Florida, and North Carolina, all very competitive programs from top conferences. The major trip of the year follows the following weekend as LMU heads west to Honolulu for the Malihini Kipa Aloha Tournament. The Lions open the tourney with preseason #20 DePaul, then take on the hosts Hawai'i before closing out the round-robin portion with Troy.
The remaining of the March schedule has a decidedly home feel as the Lions close out the month with a 10-game homestand. It all starts on March 16 against Harvard and LMU hosts the Crowne Plaza LAX Showcase March 18-20, welcoming Utah Valley, Bucknell, and North Dakota over the three days. After a single game against UNLV on March 26, preseason #6 UCLA comes to Smith Field for a doubleheader in the teams' first meeting since LMU knocked the Bruins out of the 2007 NCAA Tournament.
The final non-conference tune-up happens April 2-3 at the 1st Annual Pre-Conference Tournament in St. George, Utah. The Lions will play BYU twice and Cal State Bakersfield once, which should be a good indicator as the Lions travel to Bakersfield the following weekend for the first PCSC series. Any success that LMU gains on the road will be critical as the team will play its first two PCSC series away from home and 12 of the 20 conference games come outside Smith Field.
After the Bakersfield series, LMU travels to Saint Mary's for four games April 17-18, followed by the first home PCSC series against Santa Clara. The final conference plush starts at San Diego over the first weekend in May before concluding with what could be a pivotal four-game series at Smith Field against Sacramento State May 8-9. The Hornets have been tabbed as the preseason favorites in the Coastal Division of the PCSC coaches poll, with the Lions picked second so a berth in the PCSC Championship Series May 15-16 could be decided in those four games.
For the Lions to return to the top of the PCSC, they will need to combine those three elements of a dynasty. The hard work and recruiting already has been done in the offseason, now it takes more hard work and a little luck.