Feb. 10, 2011
Houston Hilton Plaza Invitational Central
HOUSTON - The University of Houston softball team will open the 2011 season as the host of the Hilton Houston Plaza Invitational at Cougar Softball Stadium, Feb. 11-13.
The Conference USA preseason selection to win the league will welcome four teams to the tournament that the Cougars have not faced since the 2007 season, most recently. No. 8 Michigan, Southern Illinois, Ohio and Stephen. F. Austin will head to Houston for the three-day tournament. All four will open the season following successful 2010 campaigns, including the NCAA Super Regional contending Wolverines.
"These tournaments have to do a lot for us RPI-wise and a lot of those teams like to come down to play in better weather - hopefully - so we're used to it being pretty big right out the gate," head coach Kyla Holas said. "We use these as a barometer of where we're at and what we still need to work on. Usually the month of February is us figuring it all out, finding the right combination with the right people against some really tough competition with a lot of pressure so when we get to conference it's a lot easier."
HOUSTON (2010 Record: 30-24-1)
Houston returns its entire lineup from a year ago and welcomes seven newcomers to the 2011 roster, including senior transfer and two-time Louisiana Pitcher of the Year, Donna Bourgeois. Having a pitcher on staff with three NCAA Tournament appearances to her credit, including a trip to the Women's College World Series as a freshman, is something Holas can't help but get excited about.
Named to the USA Softball Player of the Year Top-50 Watch List and an All-Conference USA preseason pick, Bourgeois will enter the season with a 69-24 career record and an impressive 1.37 career ERA to match. Aside from the Lafayette, La., native, Holas will have options in the circle. Fellow senior Amanda Crabtree also begins her senior campaign on Friday night, after posting the fifth-best strike out numbers in the conference last season (189). Holas expects to see plenty of both of them this weekend. Freshman Diedre Outon may also see some time in the circle.
On the field, Houston's starting lineup is back but will likely see some alterations. Freshman Haley Outon
is the leading candidate to start behind the plate, while fellow rookie Stesha Brazil
looks to be the starting first baseman on opening day.
At the plate, All-C-USA preseason selections Ashleigh Jones (OF) and Reina Gaber (UTL) will lead the Cougars. The duo paced Houston's offense last season, hitting .333 and .323, respectively.
"We're trying to build an offensive team," Holas said. "That's something that plagued us last year and you will see people playing this year based on their offense. That may be a little new for some of our diehards because we've had some kids that have played tremendous defense for us. This year with Donna on the mound, we're willing to sacrifice a little on defense to get her some runs."
No. 8 MICHIGAN (2010 Record: 49-8) | Friday - 5 p.m.
The Wolverines are once again a force to be reckoned with following their seventh-straight NCAA Regional title in 2010. Michigan also collected its 13th Big 10 regular season title last year before losing three All-Americans and two All-Big 10 performers to graduation.
Fortunately for head coach Carol Hutchins, who enters her 27th season on Friday, three All-Americans return to the 2011 squad. Dorian Shaw (1B), Amanda Chidester (UTL) and Big 10 Pitcher of the Year, Jordan Taylor will lead a roster that looks similar to Holas' as Michigan welcomes 13 returning players and seven newcomers this season.
The Cougars will have an advantage in that Friday will be the first time the Wolverines have been on the dirt this season.
SOUTHERN ILLINOIS (2010 Record: 38-20) | Saturday - 1 p.m.
The Salukis will start the season as the defending Missouri Valley Conference regular season champions and the tournament runner-up. Like the Cougars, they were also voted the favorite to win their conference in the MVC preseason poll.
SIU has seven returning players to set the tone for the season, including last year's MVC Pitcher of the Year Danielle Glosson. Glosson, Haley Gorman (SS) and Mallory Duran were each selected as members of the All-Conference Preseason team.
The Salukis are plagued with the same problem as Michigan in that this weekend will serve as their first opportunity to get outside on the field.
OHIO (2010 Record: 20-32) | Saturday - 3 p.m.
The Bobcats were picked to finish second in the Eastern Division of the Mid-American Conference and also received a vote as the MAC Tournament favorite.
Thirteen letterwinners return from last year's squad that posted a 14-8 conference record. Senior pitchers Melissa Bonner and Emily Wethington will lead the team heading into the weekend. Bonner posted a 9-1 MAC record and an overall ERA of 2.93 last season. Wethington was an All-MAC First Team selection in 2010.
STEPHEN F. AUSTIN (2010 Record: 29-20) | Sunday - 1 p.m.
A year after sharing the Southland Conference championship with Texas State, the Ladyjacks are projected to repeat as league champion.
Southland Conference Coach of the Year Gay McNutt will lead a small group of returners, including senior Monika Covington. Covington was named to the First-Team Preseason All-Southland squad after earning her third straight all-conference honor last spring.
The Cougars kick off the 2011 season Friday at 5 p.m. against the No. 8 Wolverines. Ohio and Southern Illinois will take the field first to begin the Houston Hilton Plaza Invitational Friday at 11 a.m. The complete tournament schedule as well as Game Tracker coverage can be found here.