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March 8, 2008

 

Cortland debuts lots of new faces

Cortland

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
SUNY Cortland sophomore Katie Finch, along with senior teammate Tina Milani in the backgroud, should be top performers for the Red Dragons this season.

By ALAN BUTLER
Sports Editor

SUNY Cortland softball coach Julie Lenhart admits she was spoiled last season.
With so many experienced seniors on a Red Dragons squad that captured a conference regular season and playoff titles, and earned the right to host the NCAA Division III tournament regional, her job was that much easier.
That is why heading into a season-opening Florida trip to participate in the Rebel Spring Games — Cortland to open the season with Sunday games against Transylvania from Kentucky and Ramapo from New Jersey — the head coach offered this insight heading into her 14th season at the college.
“The exciting part is the unknown, but that is also the scary part,” said Lenhart. “People don’t what to expect from us because we don’t know what to expect.”
The Red Dragons will have to replace seven senior starters and will debut a brand new infield — with the exception of catcher Amanda Barnett — when they play 11 games over six days in Kissimmee.
To get the trip off on the right foot, Cortland will also get to watch Team USA play Saturday night in a tournament game in Clearwater.
Lenhart noted there has been more teaching in this pre-season than a year ago, when a savvy and experienced Red Dragons squad finished 38-10. That included going a perfect 20-0 against SUNY Athletic Conference foes in the regular season.
All-America outfielder Annemarie Nelson, who batted .396 and slugged a team high 11 home runs last year, and sophomore pitcher Katie Finch, who went 19-7 with a 1.87 earned run average, are dependable Dragons headed into the season. And Lenhart feels there is enough talent around to contend again for conference honors.
But heading into the Rebel Games, Lenhart expects to use “a lot of different line-ups this week” to see what these new Red Dragon faces are capable of doing.
“It’s going to be a revolving door until something starts to click,” she said of her starting line-up.
The biggest spot to replace will be shortstop, where All-American selection and SUNYAC Player of the Year Jamie Neuner was a dominant presence. She batted .438 from her leadoff spot in the batting order, scored a team-high 52 runs and displayed a gun of a throwing arm on several occasions.
That crucial position now belongs to senior Tina Miliani, a .312 hitter last season who has not played the position in college.
“She finally is allowed to play where she deserves to be,” said Lenhard of the Milani move over from third base. “She doesn’t have the range of Jamie Neuner, but she will be fine.”
ANOTHER FAMILIAR Red Dragon face now playing a new position is senior Shara Evanter, who is now the full-time first baseman. Mostly used as the designated player last season, where she swung a potent .331 bat with seven home runs, she is eager to take over this new role.
Freshman Donnalyn Cross from Chenango Valley is looking to be the starting second baseman. Third base is a toss-up between sophomores Jackie Begnoche and Crystal Carlson that could get sorted out in Florida.
Barnett is solid behind the plate, where she shared time with graduated Blythe Beecher a year ago. Lenhart is looking for either Emily Ringenor Sammi Dieffenbach, both sophomores, to step up and take the second catcher spot.
Nelson is the only experienced outfielder on hand, junior Kim Whitman, Tompkins Cortland Community College product Bethany Williamson and freshman Rose Morrison among the newcomers battling to fill out the other two outfield spots.
Lenhart notes there is plenty of speed around. “I’m anxious to see how we can incorporate the running game into our offense,” she says.
Finch has proven herself on the mound, the best of six pitchers Lenhart has on her roster. Who becomes the person to help handle the rigors of doubleheader play is a question still to be answered, though she feels junior Erin Brain is more than capable after having been slowed by injuries the past few seasons.
Someone will have to take over for departed Ang D’Ambrose, who pitched 153 innings and went 18-3 last year for the Red Dragons.
WITH SO MANY unknowns, this Florida experience will be crucial for Cortland going against some top-notch competition like Coe College from Iowa.
The Red Dragons home opener will be against rival and perennial power Ithaca College on April 26, and two days later a Plattsburgh team considered the SUNYAC favorite comes to town. The Cardinals have their top two pitchers back from a team that upended Cortland in NCAA play last year.
Still, the won-loss record from this week may not mean all that much as Lenhart teaches and tinkers with this team. “It’s how you finish not how you start,” is her thought process heading to Florida.