WALLA WALLA - Following a second-place showing in last spring's NWAACC softball championships and concluding Eastern Region play in a third-place tie, Walla Walla Community College coach Mike Staudenmaier is optimistic that his team can improve on both finishes.
Staudenmaier's confidence is well founded. The Warriors, ranked third in the NWAACC coaches pre-season poll, return nine players off of last year's roster, including six starters - five of which were all-league selections.
"The girls have a lot of confidence," said Staudenmaier, who is in his 13th season as head coach. "They did so well last year, had a good fall, and are getting after it in all phases right now - on the field, in the weight room, and in the batting cage."
The list of returning starters are outfielders Natalie Leyland and Kayla Hutcheson, pitcher Alayna Van Hess, catcher Shaila Rivers, third baseman Lyndsey Minnich, and shortstop Kelsey Didion.
Leyland, a centerfielder, was a first-team, all-league choice and cited as a NFCA (National Fastpitch Coaches Association) Louisville Slugger All-American. She hit .448 and stole 29 bases last season, both team highs.
Like Leyland, Minnich and Didion were selected to the Eastern Region's first team. Minnich led the Warriors with a .349 batting average, 13 home runs, 60 runs batted in, and six triples, and was second on the squad with 11 doubles. Didion stroked at a .335 clip, ripped five two-base hits, and drove across 28 runs.
Rivers hit .333, and had nine doubles, five triples and 33 RBIs. Van Hess posted 10 wins and a 2.58 earned run average. Both were named to the East's second team.
"They have set the tone for this year's team," Staudenmaier said. "They've shown this year's freshmen how to do things within the confines of our program and have exuded tremendous leadership."
Others back from a season ago are outfielder Fran Leyland, and infielders Kathryn Jones and Jill Haney.
"All three of them played a lot last year and will push for starting positions this season," Staudenmaier said.
Among the newcomers to the Warrior program are North Idaho transfer Danyelle Hutchison, who will get the nod at first base and bat fifth in the WWCC order, Staudenmaier said.
Incoming freshmen include former Wa-Hi standout Alexis Bobadilla, Emmett, Idaho infielders Ashley Morrow and Jessica Logan, and outfielder Alaura Seley.
Outfielders Ramey Chambers from Richland, Payette, Idaho's Shelbi King, and Ada Kwaidah from Park Center High School in Minnesota are also in the mix.
Rounding out the list of freshmen is Weston-McEwen catcher Oshana Sampson.
"As a group, they've worked extremely hard in preparing for the season," Staudenmaier said. "It is good to see that we are ahead of where we were last year, physically and mentally."
Staudenmaier sees the 2010 edition of the Eastern Region as tough from top to bottom.
"I think that Wenatchee, Spokane, Blue Mountain and the Warriors will be tough to beat," Staudenmaier said. "Treasure Valley, Columbia Basin, Yakima Valley and Big Bend will be improved."
Walla Walla opens its season with a home doubleheader against Chemeketa on Friday at 3 p.m.