Central has made 15 consecutive trips to the NCAA Division III softball playoffs, and Iowa Conference coaches don't expect that streak to end this year.
The Dutch, led by five all-conference players who helped Central tie Coe and Simpson for the conference title last year, were a unanimous choice to repeat by the eight coaches who participated in a poll to pick this year's order of finish.
The conference season began Tuesday, weather permitting, with five doubleheaders. Included are two games that have switched home teams because of field conditions: Buena Vista at William Penn and Luther at Simpson. The other games have Central at Cornell, Dubuque at Loras and Upper Iowa at Wartburg.
Based on tradition alone, it's no surprise Central is picked so high. The Dutch are off to a 19-4 record in the pre-conference season and have won six conference titles since 1985 under coach George Wares. He is the second winningest coach all-time in NCAA Division III with a 539-189-2 record.
The Dutch have much more than tradition to offer, though. Even though Division III Player of the Year Donell Hotze graduated, there's lots of returning talent. Pitcher April Miller earned first-team all-league honors last year when she led the league in earned-run average (0.11) and wins (12).
First-team all-conference catcher Annie Van Wetzinga returns, too, along with second-team all-conference players Molly Parrott, Mandy Jens and Missy Voigt, three other returning starters and the Nos. 2 and 3 pitchers.
"Central is the favorite," William Penn coach David Phillop said. "They have good pitching and experience at key positions. But the conference will be tough, as always - at least a five or six-team race."
The league's other two returning co-champions also were selected for the Division III playoffs last year, and both are expected to field strong teams.