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Cougars place third in pre-season softball poll

Winner of 13 of the last 14 Upper Midwest Athletic Conference (UMAC) regular season championships, the College of St. Scholastica was once again picked as the favorite to win the league in 2011. Receiving 48 points and six first-place votes in the UMAC Preseason Coaches' Poll, the Saints could be the first conference team to earn an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.

1. College of St. Scholastica Saints

2010 Overall Record: 29-13

2010 UMAC Record: 19-1

2010 UMAC Finish: 1st

Starters Returning: 11

Starters Lost: 2

The Saints return a lot of offensive power from last season's UMAC regular season and tournament championship run, but lost valuable experience and leadership in their middle infield. However, with the pitching staff intact from 2010, St. Scholastica will be hoping for a repeat of last year. Leading the CSS offense is Merryssa Tiedeman, the 2010 UMAC Player of the Year and NFCA All-Midwest Region outfielder. Tiedeman broke program records with 18 doubles and recorded a 23-game hitting streak while leading the league in both doubles and triples. Joining Tiedeman is Bonnie Kowalczyk, a third team NFCA All-Midwest Region choice who led the team with a .433 batting average. On the mound, senior Jen Falk heads a staff that led the UMAC with a team earned run average of 2.75, a full run lower than any other team. Falk has been a first team All-UMAC selection the last two seasons, leading the team with 11 victories last season while earning 96 strikeouts and a 2.41 earned run average.

2. Northwestern College Eagles

2010 Overall Record: 22-19

2010 UMAC Record: 14-6

2010 UMAC Finish: 2nd

Starters Returning: 7

Starters Lost: 4

Northwestern College finished second in the poll. The Eagles are the only other UMAC team to win a conference championship in the last 10 years, and hope to repeat that feat from 2008 in 2011. Despite losing last year's top hitter in Amanda Rodgers, the Eagles return a solid core of players who combined to take second place in the final UMAC standings a year ago. Head coach Alicia du'Monceaux welcomes back all-conference performers Brianna Rodgers, Jenna Ruby and Kristin Sigurdsen. Sigurdsen, a shortstop, batted .398 last season with 37 hits, 10 doubles and three home runs. Rodgers was right behind Sigurdsen, boasting a .388 batting average in her freshman season with 52 hits and a .545 slugging percentage. Ashley Olson returns to the pitcher's circle for her senior season after recording a 3.85 ERA to go with seven wins in 2010.

3. University of Minnesota, Morris Cougars

2010 Overall Record: 16-24

2010 UMAC Record: 13-8

2010 UMAC Finish: T-3rd

Starters Returning: 7

Starters Lost: 5

Finishing third in the preseason poll was the University of Minnesota, Morris. Coming off their second straight berth in the UMAC Tournament, the Cougars face the task of replacing three all-conference performers. The 2011 squad will be led by senior third baseman Diane Blommel, an honorable mention All-UMAC and All-Defensive Team member. The Cougars went 13-8 in league play last season, including a four-game winning streak late to propel them into the top half of the conference standings. One of the top hitting teams in the UMAC, Blommel leads the returners with a .368 average last season. Emily Mehr also comes back after a .340 mark at the plate, while also leading the team in ERA and opponent batting average. Heidi Miller will continue to be relied upon for offense, having started all 36 games at second base in 2010 while boasting a .302 batting average and 27 RBI. Keep an eye on Kelsey Draper, a junior college transfer who has a big bat.

4. Bethany Lutheran College Vikings

2010 Overall Record: 19-21

2010 UMAC Record: 12-9

2010 UMAC Finish: 5th

Starters Returning: 7

Starters Lost: 4

The Bethany Lutheran College softball team is coming off of its best season in over 10 years after finishing with a 12-9 conference mark last year. Despite graduating several key players from last year's team who will be difficult to replace, head coach Leigh Ann LaFave remains optimistic about the upcoming season. Anchoring the Vikings squad in 2011 will be Ashley Jensen and Jonnica Norell. Jenson, a UMAC First Team All-Conference selection, posted a .479 batting average and a .795 slugging percentage last year. Norell scored 32 runs to go with 27 hits last season, while committing just seven errors at second base the entire season. Emily Rauchman returns for her sophomore season to lead Bethany Lutheran's pitching staff. Last season, Rauchman tallied 121 innings, striking out 85 batters over 21 games. With the departure of all-conference third baseman Susan Hegstrom, Shannon Grimmer will see more time in the hot corner.

5. Northland College LumberJills

2010 Overall Record: 21-23

2010 UMAC Record: 13-8

2010 UMAC Finish: T-3rd

Starters Returning: 5

Starters Lost: 4

2011 will be a rebuilding year for Northland College, as the LumberJills graduated much of both their offense and defense from last season. Known names including Brittany Schmitt, Asia DeVlaeminck, Marge Koosmann, and Amanda Seely, all graduated last year, taking away Northland's top four hitters. Schmitt threw almost 80 percent of the Jills' innings last year and graduated as the school's all-time strikeout and wins leader. Returners to the 2011 squad who contributed offensively last year include Rebecca Ristau (who hit .301), sophomore Sam Bona (.292), junior Kylie Garing (.291) and junior Ashleigh Miller (.273). The Jills will be looking for pitching contributions from relatively inexperienced collegiate pitchers. Junior Kristin Zimmer enters this season with the most experience, having thrown 39 innings last year. Freshmen Rosie Medrano and sophomore Angelina Koosmann are expected to make their collegiate pitching debuts.

6. Martin Luther College Knights

2010 Overall Record: 15-23

2010 UMAC Record: 7-14

2010 UMAC Finish: 6th

Starters Returning: 5

Starters Lost: 4

Martin Luther College welcomes back five starters from a team that finished sixth in the league in 2010. The Knights return two all-conference performers in Sarah Free and Karla Opperman, who were each named honorable mention last season. Free led Martin Luther in batting average (.393), hits (46) and on-base percentage (.433) at the plate, and also led all returning pitchers on the staff with six wins. Opperman led the Knights with a .575 slugging percentage as a catcher and designated player last season, and finished the season with four home runs and 26 runs batted in. Three other infielders return for Martin Luther in 2011. Junior Katie Kretsch returns for her third season at first base, while sophomores Amanda Fogle and Amber Krause return for their second seasons up the middle.

7. Presentation College Saints

2010 Overall Record: 3-23

2010 UMAC Record: 3-14

2010 UMAC Finish: 7th

Starters Returning: 4

Starters Lost: 5

2011 marks a new era in Presentation College softball, as Alaina Benson will make her debut as the team's head coach. Benson brings some experience to the program, having most recently been a softball graduate assistant at Northern State University for the 2008-09 seasons. Benson also knows the UMAC well, as she pitched for the University of Minnesota, Morris during her undergraduate studies. The Saints will be looking to Dana Chalupksy to continue swinging a hot bat as she did last season, hitting .430. Kelsey Schmidt also returns for her sophomore year and will also bring some experience to a younger squad. The Saints are excited about the addition of seven newcomers this season. Transfer, Michelle Stratton of Alaska, will be looked upon to handle the pitching, along with freshman Danielle Naumann. 

8. Crown College Storm

2010 Overall Record: 0-27

2010 UMAC Record: 0-20

2010 UMAC Finish: 8th

Starters Returning: 4

Starters Lost: 5

Rounding out the UMAC's eight institutions in the poll is Crown College. The Storm is another team who has a new leader, as Jamie Ross calls the signals. Crown looks to improve on last year's record anchored by only four returners from the 2010 squad.  Shortstop Caitlyn Curtis, catcher Kelsey Swanson, pitcher Laura Berman, and second baseman Nicole Cretinon all return for the upcoming season.  All four players played critical roles in the past and will be counted on to fill critical roles in 2011. Crown will also be looking to new players to fill in to complete the squad.  The additions of pitcher Shelby Vischer and freshman catcher Lauren Erickson will add significant strength in the field, as well as some power to the line-up. 

All eight UMAC teams will play their respective nonconference schedules before beginning league action on April 3. The conference's top four teams will make the conference postseason tournament on May 6-7 with the winner earning a berth into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in UMAC history.