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A core of veteran players raise Bulls' NCAA hopes

It's a refrain they all know.

"This is the year," said second baseman Dawn Melfi, one of seven senior starters returning from a University of South Florida softball team that was nationally ranked last season.

"It's got to be a good year," senior leftfielder Christy Byrd chimed in. "We have to leave our mark."

For if not now, when?

When else could USF accumulate as many experienced, talented players and hope to contest for a NCAA tournament berth _ the first for a USF fast-pitch team?

"Our expectations have to be very high," said coach Hildred Deese, who guided USF to slow-pitch national titles in 1983 and 1984 before the program moved to fast-pitch in 1985. "This is our year to come through."

The Bulls (35-18 and ranked as high as No. 19 midway through the year), who open Saturday at 1 p.m. against visiting Stetson, do seem to have all the bases covered.

Pitching: Junior Jill Klein, who set the national high school record for wins (123), was 12-8 with a 1.41 earned-run average last year. But said she's ready to live up to her hype.

"I struggled my first two years, but I feel like this should be my year," she said. "I've refined some of my techniques and I'm throwing (strikes) more consistently."

Freshman Kerin Dull, who was 17-7 with a 0.63 ERA at Mission Viejo (Calif.) High, was the Bulls lone recruit and recognizes that she's envisioned as the missing piece to a postseason puzzle.

"I don't consider that pressure; I consider it an honor they think of me that way," Dull said. "It's not all on my shoulders. All I have to do is just concentrate on throwing strikes."

Sophomore Michelle Moodispaw rounds out the staff. She was 9-1 with a 1.53 ERA. Her lone loss was against Florida State, 2-0. The Seminoles were one of two teams from the South to earn a spot in the 20-team NCAA tournament.

Hitting: In the world of fastpitch softball, the offense isn't expected to produce six, seven runs a game. In just doesn't happen against the better teams.

Instead, teams must manufacture runs _ a hit, a steal, a ground out to the right side to advance the runner, a sacrifice fly. Execution and speed or aggressive base running are critical, more so than for the men's game where home runs can atone for a botched bunt.

Melfi, a speedy left-handed slap-hitter (she pounds the ball into the ground or through the hole), set a school record with a .395 batting average last year. The Bulls' lead-off hitter also was 24-for-24 in stolen base attempts, so a single became a double.

"Since it's my last year, I'm giving it my all," said Melfi, a second-team all-South Region pick. "I've never played with so many experienced players and we all want to go to nationals."

Byrd, a former star at Brandon High, had a career-year last season and was a first-team all-South selection. She hit .349 with four homers, 12 triples and 48 runs batted in _ the latter two were school single-season records. She stole 12 bases in 14 tries.

Seniors Kim Jones and Robin Alamillo split time between third base and the designated hitter and both are solid offensively. Jones batted .293 with 17 RBI last year and, although Alamillo struggled (.262, 18 RBI) last year, she hit .331 with 23 RBI as a sophomore.

Junior catcher Shelley Carey hit only .255 last year, a drop of 41 points from her freshman year, but had a good fall preseason (.389). Likewise, senior catcher Rachel Muller showed considerable improvement at the plate in the fall (.438 after a poor .228 last year).

Defense: Bobbles and bad throws have plagued the Bulls the last two years. In 1989, they committed 25 errors in nine one-run losses. Last year, the Bulls committed 31 errors in nine close loses.

"In big games, for some reason, our defense has just sort of collapsed," Deese said. "I guess we just let the pressure get to us. But I can't anticipate that happening this year."

Sophomore shortstop Missy Martinez, who saw spot duty last year, is quick and has a strong arm. Perhaps knowing she is the starter will help her confidence and reduce her miscues. Melfi is a solid defender, giving the Bulls great speed up the middle.

Byrd is quick in left and senior center fielder Holly Lane, who's equally as fast, is known for spectacular diving catches. Senior right fielder Joanna Hale, who'll be platooned with junior Kristen Matala, has a good arm. In fact, Hale threw out three batters at first in one game this past fall.

"All we have to do is stay healthy, play consistent defense, get some timely hitting and have our pitchers keep from issuing the key walk," Deese said.

"We have a strong schedule (eight top 20 teams), but we have to believe in ourselves and not be intimidated by anyone because the athletic ability and skill are there. For us, the time is now."

Bulls at a glance

Coach: Hildred Deese (224-134 in seven years).

Assistant coach: Ken Eriksen.

1991 record: 35-18.

Key returners: Christy Byrd, OF, Sr.; Dawn Melfi, 2B, Sr.; Robin Alamillo, 3B/DH, Sr.; Kim Jones, 3B/DH, Sr.; Jill Klein, P, Jr.

Top newcomers: Kerin Dull, P, Fr.

Roster

Player Pos. B/T Yr. Hometown

Robin Alamillo 3B/DH R/R Sr. Winter Haven

Christy Byrd OF R/R Sr. Valrico

Michelle Carey C/DH R/R Jr. Laguna Hills, Calif.

Kerin Dull P/1B R/R Fr. Mission Viejo, Calif.

Joanna Hale OF R/R Jr. Fort Pierce

Keitha Hall 1B R/R Sr. Plant City

Julie Johnson OF L/R Jr. Miami

Kim Jones 3B/DH R/R Sr. Peoria, Ill.

Jill Klein P L/R Jr. Waterford, Mich.

Holly Lane OF L/R Sr. Lebanon, Ohio

Missy Martinez SS L/R So. Winter Springs

Kristen Matala OF/INFR/R Jr. Sarasota

Dawn Melfi 2B L/R Sr. Johnson City, N.Y.

Michelle MoodispawP R/R So. Tampa

Rachel Muller C/DH R/R Sr. Washington, Ill.

Dawn Stahlak 3B/P R/R Fr. Country Club Hills, Ill.

Schedule

February

15 Stetson (DH) 1 p.m.

18 at Florida Southern (DH) 6 p.m.

20-23 at San Diego Spring Classic TBA

25 Tampa (DH) 6 p.m.

March

5 UNC-Wilmington (DH) 6 p.m.

6 Ball State (DH) 6 p.m.

8 Florida State (DH) 1 p.m.

10 Penn State (DH) 6 p.m.

11 Iowa State 6:30

11 Connecticut 8 p.m.

13-15 USF Classic (at Greco) TBA

17 Adelphi (DH) 5 p.m.

18 Yale (DH) 6 p.m.

20-22 at Florida State Tournament TBA

26 Drexel (DH) 5 p.m.

April

15 Florida Southern (DH) 6 p.m.

17-19 at Chattanooga Tourn. TBA

May

2-3 at Connecticut TBA

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