Softball Faces Challenge in Opening Game of NCAA Regional

FREDERICK, Md.--The Hood College softball team faces a challenge when it takes on Muskingum College in the first game of the 2006 NCAA Division III Softball Championships Salem Regional Thursday at 10 a.m.

The Blazers, 27-14 and winners of the Atlantic Women's Colleges Conference, are in their first-ever NCAA Tournament, while the Muskies, currently 39-4 and ranked third in the country, captured their ninth straight Ohio Athletic Conference title to earn their ninth straight NCAA berth.

"We are just going in to compete to the best of our abilities," Hood head coach Tricia Fiut said. "It's an honor to be going and we do not plan on wasting the opportunity we have. Playing Muskingum will be a great challenge, but we're ready for it."

The Blazers have enjoyed a record-setting season in Fiut's third year at the helm. Hood's 27 victories are the most in the program's history, and the team has set a handful of other records. The Blazers look to carry the momentum of their three-game sweep at last weekend's AWCC Tournament in Staunton, Va., an additional hour and a half south to Salem, Va., and the James I. Moyer Sports Complex, which has been the site of several NCAA Division II and III Softball World Series (final eight) in recent years.

The Blazers have been getting it done all season with a potent offense, excellent pitching and solid defense.

Freshman shortstop Sara Wastler, who earlier today was voted the AWCC Most Outstanding Player as well as the AWCC Newcomer of the Year, headlines the offensive attack and heads into the NCAA Tournament leading Hood in batting average (.484), runs (48), hits (61), doubles (20), RBIs (36), total bases (96), slugging percentage (.762), on-base percentage (.542) and steals (16). Wastler was also named to the 2006 Louisville Slugger/National Fastpitch Coaches Association All-Atlantic Region second team earlier this week.

Seven other Hood starters are hitting over .300 on the season. Sophomore leftfielder Jamie Bussey, who was named to both the All-AWCC first team and the Louisville Slugger/NFCA All-Atlantic Region first team, owns a .381 batting average and has driven in 25, while junior centerfielder Tamara Maggard, a second-team all-conference pick, adds a .330 average with 20 RBIs and 20 runs scored.

Freshman catcher Jess Krietz, another second-team selection, is hitting .317 with six doubles, a triple, two homers and 26 RBIs. Freshman rightfielder Kara Robert, Hood's third first-team All-AWCC honoree, is batting .308 with a team-high four home runs. She also has 11 doubles and 22 RBIs.

Freshman Jamie Gardner, another first-team All-AWCC choice, is 16-4 with a 2.45 earned run average. She has set single-season school records for innings pitched (128.2), wins, appearances (27), starts (19), shutouts (7), saves (2) and strikeouts (115). She has also tied the school mark for complete games (15).

Muskingum, located in New Concord, Ohio, is a legitimate national championship contender and looks to advance to the NCAA Division III World Series for the fourth straight year and the fifth time in the last six seasons. The Muskies won the national championship in 2001.

Muskingum boasts the nation's third-best team batting average at a whopping .370 mark. Junior second baseman/outfielder Kim Tackett, a two-time All-American, is the table-setter with a .376 batting average, 30 RBIs and 11 stolen bases.

Senior outfielder Lindsay Bramhall (.424, 13 2B, 31 RBIs), sophomore catcher Kari Hoying (.483, 15 2B, 11 HR, 57 RBIs) and sophomore third baseman Heather Fields (.357, 17 2B, 3 HR, 24 RBIs) are as solid a 3-4-5 part of the order as any in the country.

The Mounties are just as strong in the circle with senior Erica Hoyt, a three-time All-American, and freshman Amy Mattin.

Hoyt is 19-3 with a 2.11 ERA, while Mattin is 17-1 with a 1.04 ERA. The two have combined to strike out 233 batters in 244.1 innings and have held opponents to a .182 batting average.

Other participants in the Salem, Va., regional are host Roanoke, Emory, Transylvania, Piedmont, Thomas More and Denison.

Roanoke (33-5) won the Old Dominion Athletic Conference Tournament and makes its seventh trip to the NCAA Tournament. The Maroons are currently tied for 18th in the nation in the NFCA Division III Poll.

Emory, located in Atlanta, Ga., is in the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in six years. The Eagles (33-9) finished third at the World Series in 2002 and were fourth in 2003.

Transylvania (31-10), located in Lexington, Ky., makes its first NCAA appearance after winning the Heartland Conference Tournament. Piedmont, out of Demorest, Ga., earned an at-large bid out of the Great South Athletic Conference with a 31-9 record.

Thomas More (25-13), located in Crestview Hills, Ky., just minutes from Cincinnati, makes its second straight NCAA appearance after a runner-up finish in the Presidents' Athletic Conference Tournament. Denison (32-11) returns to the NCAA Tournament for the third time (and first since 2002) after winning its fourth North Coast Athletic Conference Tournament title.