ASHLAND — The Southern Oregon softball team is taking Punxsutawney Phil's prediction of an early spring seriously, as the Raiders will officially kick off the spring 2013 season this weekend at the Simpson Tournament in Redding.
Southern Oregon will take on British Columbia, Simpson and Biola today before facing William Jessup, Concordia (Calif.) and Vanguard on Saturday as the Raiders look to outperform their fifth-place Cascade Collegiate Conference prediction.
"We're looking forward to getting rolling in Redding," SOU head coach Kim Fritts said. "We're just looking for the returners to take a lead and add in some of our key freshmen."
Fritts enters her seventh season at the helm of the SOU program in 2013. With 13 returning players and seven seniors, the Raiders hope to build on last season's 22-18 record.
A trio of infielders headline SOU's returning corps. All-conference shortstop Stephanie Vandenbusch returns for her senior season after leading SOU in doubles (10) and slugging percentage (.828) and tying for the team lead with nine home runs.
"She's strong with the bat and will play a little utility for us," Fritts said. "We'll see where that ends up after this preseason."
Honorable mention all-conference catcher Julia Willison will reclaim her spot behind the plate after batting .343 with a .677 slugging percentage last year. Willison led the 2012 squad with runs batted in and tied Vandenbusch with nine homers.
Irene Barrantes returns after missing the second half of her junior year with an elbow injury. The veteran third baseman was hitting .400 with three homers, six doubles and a .650 slugging percentage when she suffered the season-ending injury. She batted .395 with a .791 slugging percentage and nine home runs in 30 games in 2011.
"She's coming back strong and will be solid at third," Fritts said.
Two of the Raiders' top three pitchers from 2012 will return this year. Karlie Stephens, from Eagle Point, led the 2012 squad with a 2.84 ERA while winning nine games, and Chelsea Talbert tallied three wins last season.
Southern Oregon will face a difficult challenge in replacing a pair of four-year starters, as Katie Moy and Jordyn Kurtz graduated last season. With five newcomers, Fritts expects several players to step up and fill the void.
Fritts mentioned three freshmen she expects to contribute right away. Sydney White will take Kurtz' place on the pitching staff after earning all-league honors in her senior season at Clovis West High School.
"Sydney will round out the pitching staff for us this year," Fritts said.
Alexa Gonzalez could step into the middle infield for the Raiders in 2013 after earning all-league honors all four years at Heritage High School. Three-time all-conference honoree Sulie Augustine will likely step into Moy's position in the outfield.
The Raiders will play a pair of nonconference tournaments along with a Feb. 16 road doubleheader against William Jessup. Southern Oregon will host the annual SOU Tournament on Feb. 22 and 23 at Medford's US Cellular Fields. The Raiders' first official home games will be March 8, when SOU will host Eastern Oregon in the CCC opener at 2 p.m.
Two-time defending conference champion Oregon Tech was picked to finish first in the preseason conference poll after ranking ninth in the first 2013 NAIA poll. Southern Oregon was picked to finish fifth, behind No. 17 Corban, Concordia and College of Idaho. Fritts hopes the next month of nonconference competition will prepare the Raiders to take a step forward in the conference this season.
"We're looking for a solid season this year," Fritts said. "I think that we're going to get some bugs worked out here in the next few weeks and then start conference the second week of March."