MOUNT VERNON - The Iowa Conference, one of the top Division III softball conferences in the nation, once again appears to be as strong as tradition has proven.
Last year, three teams won 30-plus games led by national runner-up Central that finished with a 41-10 record. Conference champion Wartburg, a regional finalist in last year's NCAA tournament, finished at 36-9-1 record overall and Coe finished 31-10.
The strong teams from a season ago are back stronger and the sub-.500 teams from a year ago are back stronger. On average, 12 letterwinners and seven starters return per team. Included in those numbers are 11 of the 24 all-conference players from 2001.
Although the perennial powers like Central, Wartburg, Simpson and Coe are once again picked by many coaches to finish at the top of the conference standings, four first-year head coaches could bring a fresh start to their team and surprise some people.
"Obviously, Central has the most experience returning and is probably the front-runner, followed closely by Wartburg and Simpson. Coe will give them a strong challenge," Buena Vista coach Marge Willadsen said. "With new coaches at Upper Iowa, Dubuque, Loras and Luther, things could be interesting."
"Wartburg and Central are the favorites and Simpson should push for a top position. After that, the race is wide open," Cornell coach Lori Moss said.
Wartburg began its season with its Florida spring trip on March 3, and completed the 12-game, six-day trip on Friday. Buena Vista, Loras and Luther started their seasons on Friday, followed by the season openers for Central, Coe and Simpson today. Upper Iowa kicks off its season on March 16 and Dubuque gets underway on March 18.
The conference season begins on April 6 with each school playing doubleheaders against all conference opponents. The season concludes on May 3 with the NCAA tournament to follow.
BUENA VISTA SYNOPSIS: With nine freshmen and seven sophomores among the 21 on its roster, Buena Vista, which finished 22-13 overall a year ago, will be one of the youngest teams in the conference. It must overcome the loss of two four-year letterwinners and their top two hitters from a season ago - Courtney Anderson (.381) and Molly Schuler (.336), both of whom earned all-conference honors last season. Despite their youth, the Beavers return 11 players that saw action in 2001 including six starters.
* ON THE MOUND: Buena Vista lacks experience on the mound. Sophomores Gelene Bousum and Kara Rea return with limited experience from last season.
Bousum appeared in six games with two starts and one complete game. She finished the season 1-0 record, a 2.53 ERA and 18 strikeouts in 19.1 innings. Rea appeared in three games with one start as a freshman. She posted a 1-1 record and a 1.05 ERA in 13.1 innings.
Freshmen Erin Cottington and Kelly Kalvelage will add depth to the pitching staff.
* IN THE FIELD/AT THE PLATE: Six position starters return led by all-conference designated player Katie Richardson. As a freshman, Richardson hit .296 with a team-high three home runs in 29 games. She will also see action behind the plate along with sophomore Lindsey Roberts, who hit .235 and drove in 10 runs in 25 games last season.
The corner infielders both return from last season. At first base, Megan O'Malley struggled offensively (.159) but had a solid defensive season, committing only two errors in 90 chances (.978 fielding percentage). Senior Laura Lunders, the starter at third base, was third on the team in hitting (.306) and led the team with 18 RBI.
Junior Sara Salton and sophomores Kris Bordwell and Abby Lance all saw limited action last season around the infield. Salton and Bordwell each played in three games with one start. Lance hit .357 in 15 games.
Freshmen Katie Onken, Angie Willer, Tracy Lonning, Abby Brown and Ashley Briant will compete for playing time.
In the outfield, senior Jeni Rydberg returns as the starting left fielder and sophomore Holli Protexter returns in right field. Lance, junior transfer Monica Osheim and freshman Leslie Petersen will compete for playing time in the outfield.
* IN THE DUGOUT: In her 21st season at Buena Vista, Marge Willadsen is the Dean of Iowa Conference coaches. She is 13 victories shy of 500 for her career (487-293-2). Her 487 career victories rank fourth among active coaches and fifth all-time in Division III. She has been named Iowa Conference Coach of the Year twice - in 1992 and 1995.
* WHAT THE COACH SAYS: "Our team will be led by three seniors (O'Malley, Lunders and Rydberg). However, we will be very young up the middle with two sophomore pitchers and inexperience at the other infield positions," Willadsen said. "The potential for a good season is within our grasp as we gain maturity throughout the season."