Saturday, August 12, 2006

Bunge expects transition year


Serena Settlemier is playing as a professional. So is shortstop Destiny Frankenstein. Second baseman Jessica Moppin has been working with the Russian national team.

Three other Kansas University softball players also completed their eligibility in 2006, leaving coach Tracy Bunge to contemplate an extreme make-over.

"It's going to be a big transition year," Bunge said. "We have so many new faces."

None of those new faces - or any returnees, for that matter - is likely to come close to emulating Settlemier, who established school records and led the Big 12 Conference in home runs (22), RBI (61) and slugging percentage (.771) in the spring.

Meanwhile, in the circle, the senior right-hander posted a 17-7 record and a 1.44 ERA. Little wonder, she was named Big 12 player of the year.

Settlemier and the veteran keystone combination of Frankenstein and Moppin played major roles as Kansas belied its No. 6 seed and won its first Big 12 Conference tourney championship.

Humphreys sparkled

Still, KU would not have stunned the league in the postseason tourney if it weren't for pitcher Kassie Humphreys. As a junior last spring, Humphreys posted a 1.19 ERA - second lowest in the Big 12 - while winning 19 games. Humphreys, a 5-foot-11 right-hander from Glendale, Ariz., registered 262 strikeouts to rank third on the school single-season list.

Other returning regulars are third baseman Val Chapple, first baseman Nicole Washburn, catcher Tiffany Craner and outfielders Stevie Crisosto and Betsy Wilson.

Bunge also hopes to have catcher Elle Pottorf back. Pottorf, who hit .280 while starting almost every game during the 2005 season, sat out last spring as a medical red-shirt, nursing a shoulder injury.

"That shoulder has been a slow rehab," Bunge said. "I don't think swinging the bat will be a problem for her, but we're still not sure how she'll be able to throw."

It's possible Pottorf could be utilized as the designated hitter with Craner working behind the plate. After taking over as KU's full-time backstop about halfway through the '06 season, Craner produced amazing defensive numbers. In 41 games behind the plate, the 5-11 Paola product wasn't charged with a single error or passed ball.

No. 2 pitcher needed

Basically, Bunge will build her 2007 team around Humphreys while hoping to complement the fire-balling right-hander in the circle with either soph Valerie George or freshman Sarah Vertelka. Neither George, who appeared in only a dozen games last spring, nor Vertelka have Humphreys-like heat. Both rely on pitch movement.

"I know it was a frustrating year for Val George because she didn't get much (pitching) time," Bunge said. "We're hoping she takes a couple of steps forward."

Meanwhile, Bunge liked what she saw of Vertelka in AAU ball this summer. As a senior at Rancho Cucamonga (Calif.) High, Vertelka posted a 22-5 record with a stingy 0.30 ERA.

Nevertheless, pitchers cannot win if their teammates can't score and Bunge has lost six of her eight top hitters from last season's 36-26 club. Worse, those half-dozen seniors accounted for 40 of the Jayhawks' 49 home runs.

Of the returning regulars, Chapple is the leading hitter, but the former national high school player of the year while at Olathe East batted just .228 as a freshman. Crisosto's average was .204, Washburn's .179 and Wilson's .149.

Southpaw slappers

Tracy Lubken, an outfielder from Scottsdale, Ariz., and Stephanie McCaulley, an infielder from Odessa (Texas) College, will give Bunge something she hasn't had in the last few years - two left-handed slap hitters at the top of the lineup.

Bunge, in fact, had only one left-handed hitter on her roster last year and Sara Sidebottom logged just one at-bat.

Amanda Jobe, a first baseman-outfielder from Shawnee Mission Northwest, is another southpaw swinger who could make an impact next spring. Another new face with power potential is Addy Lucero, a right-handed hitting first baseman-outfielder who was McCaulley's teammate at the Texas two-year school.

McCaulley and Sara Ramirez, a freshman from Pacoima, Calif., are probable replacements for Frankenstein and Moppin in the middle of the infield. Another possibility is to shift Crisosto from center field to shortstop.

Second base is wide open - "It'll be a dogfight," Bunge said - with walk-ons Amber Freeman (SM Northwest) and Ali Stanton (Oakville, Mo.) also in the picture.

"We have questions up the middle," Bunge said, "and who is going to step up as our No. 2 pitcher."


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