BIGGER EAST, MORE TESTS

The 2006 incarnation of the women’s softball team has a vastly different appearance than the 2005 model. Last year’s version was stacked with veteran talent and experience but this year’s team features six new faces and nine out of the 16 players are freshmen or sophomores.

With a team that is so much different than last year, coach Debbie DeJong knows that she has a lot of work to do to help improve on last year’s disappointing 20-30-1 record.

“Last year taught me a lot,” she said. “I have learned a lot of patience and I know that it takes time to build a winner.”

DeJong will need that patience, especially since she will be faced with a tougher challenge because the landscape of the Big East has changed drastically. The additions of DePaul, South Florida and Louisville – all formidable opponents – will make St. John’s schedule all the more difficult.

The problems have already begun as the preseason coaches’ poll has the Blue Demons (first), the Bulls (third), and the Cardinals (fourth) all ranked ahead of the Red Storm (ninth).

“It’s not about where you are picked in the beginning of the season,” DeJong said. “It’s about where you finish. We know the conference has gotten a little bit more difficult, but we expect some very competitive games.”

DePaul won the Conference USA Tournament and advanced to the NCAA Tournament before falling to Michigan and Alabama. USF reached the NCAA Regionals and Louisville was the Conference USA regular-season champion last year on its way to the NCAA Tournament.

Despite all of the upheaval in the Big East, and the influx of new talent, St. John’s remains optimistic.

“I’m expecting some strong competition,” Oliver, a designated player, said. “I think that we play to the level of our competition, and because of that, this should be a very exciting team this year.”

The excitement on offense will come from mainstays Tami Hill and Jo Sherlock who are both coming off terrific seasons. Hill batted .372 with one home run and 19 RBI.

Sherlock had a .302 batting average to go along with eight home runs and 38 RBI. The senior also had a .556 slugging percentage and a .965 fielding percentage.

With the departure of lefty starter Meghan Allman, the pitching staff has more questions than it has had in the second-year coach’s tenure. Junior Kim Lerch, St. John’s best pitcher for much of last year, was hampered by a shoulder injury for most of last season, but still managed to go 4-4 with a 2.21 ERA while striking out 21 in 50.2 innings.