The Buena Vista University softball team returns six of its top seven hitters from last season as well as the squad's top two pitchers.
A year after finishing 5-11 in the Iowa Conference, Coach Marge Willadsen believes her program is in a position to stun the other teams and coaches in the league who picked the Beavers to finish in the bottom half of the conference.
"I definitely feel we have the potential to win the conference this year even though the coaches' poll consensus had us picked for sixth," said Willadsen who is entering her 26th season leading Buena Vista. "I think we will surprise a lot of teams this year."
Willadsen points to the team's starting pitching as an area of strength. Sarah Dirkx and Brandi Sykora will return as the team's starting pitchers.
Newcomer Liz Dornfeld will give the team depth and the ability to change things up, a luxury that the Beavers did not enjoy last season.
Dirkx posted a 6-10 record last year to go along with a 3.79 earned run average.
Dirkx, who ranks third in school history with an average of 5.9 strikeouts per seven innings, also registered a team-high 83 strikeouts.
Sykora, a second-team all-conference utility player, went 10-10 on the pitching rubber and posted a team-low 2.12 ERA.
Her ability to play multiple positions is what made her a key component on last year's squad. When she is not pitching this year, Sykora will likely start at first base.
"Sykora is much stronger this year, more confident, and has the potential to be a first team all-conference athlete and even All-American before she leaves BV," Willadsen commented. "She is an outstanding athlete."
Sykora is not the only Buena Vista player who will play more than one position this spring. Brooke Bousum, who had a team-high .466 slugging percentage last year, will play first base when Sykora is pitching and will catch games that Dirkx throws.
Splitting the duties behind the plate with Bousum will be Ashley Partlow. Partlow, the team's top power threat, hit .288 last year with a team-high four home runs and 28 runs driven in.
She is one of Willadsen's top options to fill the designated player spot during games that Bousum is catching.
Second team all-conference selection Amanda Armstrong will return at shortstop. She registered a .330 batting average, scored 28 runs, and stole six bases, all of which were team highs.
"Armstrong is more consistent and stronger this year," reported Willadsen. "She feels more relaxed and confident and will bring a very good bat to the plate."
Newcomer Kelsey Ripperger will likely step in at second base while Monica Tucker will get the starting nod at third base. Despite having three sophomores and one freshman in the infield, Willadsen views it as one of her team's strengths.
She has so much confidence in her underclassmen that 2004 all-conference third baseman Lesley Salton has been shifted to the outfield after one year away from the program.
Salton will be competing with Molly Luchtel, who started 30 games last season, for the starting spot in left field.
A battle for the other two outfield positions is currently being waged between Trish Porter, Amy Kamies, and Tracy Benge.
Much like last season, Willadsen will spend a good deal of time during the early part of the year figuring out the right outfield combination.
"I'm really focusing on settling in on a combination of outfielders who will give us speed and consistency both defensively and offensively."
This season will be like none before it in the Iowa Conference.
The conference has added a six-team postseason tournament during the first weekend in May which will determine the league's automatic qualifier into the NCAA III National Tournament.
"Having a conference tournament will provide a great incentive and motivation for teams that may lose a game or two early in the season," Willadsen said. "Teams will still have a chance to make the NCAA playoffs by finishing strong in the conference tournament or by winning it outright."
Buena Vista will open its conference play on April 1 by hosting Loras College in the home opener.