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The Bradsher Beat
Wednesday, March 30, 2011

By Bethany Bradsher

ECU softball's young bloods thriving early

By Bethany Bradsher
All rights reserved.

Tonight the East Carolina softball team was supposed to be engaged in a high-stakes, emotional doubleheader against North Carolina State, the first big in-state rival to face the Pirates in their new stadium.

Instead, because of inclement weather, they’ll be getting in whatever practice they can to prepare for a weekend series at Southern Mississippi.

Extra days of practice certainly aren’t as glamorous as a showdown with the Lady Wolfpack, but they are necessary for a team with 10 freshmen on its roster, coach Tracey Kee said.

With so little experience, the 25-10 Pirates have already scored some triumphs, like winning the series against formerly undefeated Conference USA foe Tulsa last weekend. But every hour on the practice field helps the group solidify its competitive identity.

“With this young group, any time we can get practice it’s very valuable for us,” said Kee, who is in her 15th season leading the team. “We’re taking baby steps. We came out, we won the first game against Memphis and then dropped the next two. We went to Marshall and we figured out how to win a series on the road. And then against Tulsa it was figuring out how to win on Sunday.”

When they recruited this class, Kee and her staff knew they would be losing seven starters, so they looked for young women who showed not only talent, but the kind of resiliency and determination that would allow them to contribute right out of the gate.

Most Division I recruits get some time to observe and work on their skills as they make the overwhelming transition to college, but Kee is relying heavily on players who were still playing out their high school seasons one year ago.

“The youth on this squad, if you look at the roster, they’re playing key positions,” she said. “They’re scattered all over the dirt, in the outfield, they are hitting one through five in our lineup. As the coach, it makes it a little nervewracking at times.”

Jordan Lewis and Kristi Oshiro are two of the newcomers who are proving that a group of mostly freshmen can still make some noise in Division I softball. Oshiro, who came to ECU from Mililani, HI, is leading the team in hitting with a 3.40 batting average. Lewis, who comes from Fremont, Calif., is tied for second with Suzanne Riggs at .313. Lewis and Oshiro are the top two Lady Pirates in runs scored, hits, doubles and total bases.

The two represent the second generation of West Coast softball Pirates. The first group of Hawaii players graduated last year and will never share a field with this group, but this year’s three Hawaii freshman were undoubtedly inspired by departed players like Cristen Aona and Marina Gusman-Brown. Their legacy was certainly a strong influence in Oshiro’s decision to come such a long way from home.

“I guess just hearing what they did here, I knew they set the mark really high and they worked hard and did everything the right way,” Oshiro said. “They set a good example for us to keep working as hard as they did and be as successful as they were.”

Lewis didn’t know any of the Western players when she committed to ECU, but she knew that the strong Pacific Coast influence would help her make an easier adjustment. And maybe because so many of them are several time zones away from their families, the team has bonded extremely well so far, she said, choosing to spend much of their time together off the field and learning how to sharpen each other on the field.

Even if she knew that observers expected them to have a down year because of their young team, Lewis believes that the Pirates are surpassing expectations because of their talent and their determination not to waste a day of this experience.

“We could have come in and not done as well, and people would have said, ‘Oh well, they’re just freshmen,’” she said. “I think we wanted to come in and show that we’re here for a reason, we’re just as good everyone else.”

Kee is shifting the lineup often, both in the field and in the batting order, to determine which combinations pack the most punch and to keep her players on their toes during practice. And she embraces any extra practice she can get, even on the day that was originally reserved for N.C. State.

The Lady Pirates will play the Wolfpack soon, by the way — the doubleheader was rescheduled for April 13 at the ECU Softball Stadium.

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04/01/2011 01:26 AM

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