NEW CONCORD -- In her third season at the helm of the Muskingum University Fighting Lady Muskies softball program, Kari Hoying is poised for a return to the top echelon of the Ohio Athletic Conference and get back into the post-season tournament that the Lady Muskies dominated from it inception until the past two years.

Last season, Muskingum finished 23-17 overall and 10-8 in conference play to tie for fourth, but lost out to Mount Union on the tie-breaker process and thus failed to reach the OAC Tournament.

Hoying returns 10 letterwinners from last year's squad, but graduation claimed seven players including four starters -- outfielder Kristyn Heagen (John Glenn), pitcher Ashley Price, catcher Aly Mazzy and Chelsea Kaunert. Price has returned this year at the pitching coach while Alyssa Kelley, following a collegiate career at Ashland, and Steve Cowgill, formerly assistant coach at John Glenn High, have been added as assistant coaches.

Pitching is always a big key and Hoying believes she has a staff this year that can lead the Lady Muskies back to the top of the conference.

Returning to the circle this spring will be senior Morgan Yackey along with juniors Brittany Folk and Rachel Bannister. Added to the pitching mix will be upperclassmen senior Andrea Larkin (Dover) and sophomore Jessica Poff along with freshmen Sarah Browning and Kristin Gill. Sophomore Ashley Gilbert, who tossed 72.1 innings last year with four wins and 29 strikeouts, suffered a torn ACL and will miss this season.

Folk spent the most time in the circle last spring (57.1 innings), posting a 3-5 record with 26 strikeouts and earning OAC Pitcher of the Week honors. Bannister is not far behind and was 4-2 last year with 30.1 innings of work and she limited opponents to a .238 average with two outs, while Yackey turned in a 3-1 record a year ago while working in 28.1 innings.

"We are looking at a five pitcher rotation," Hoying pointed out. "Yackey has come back in great athletic shape and all three of the returning pitchers have improved. Browning is from Mason and brings a great softball background. I hope she can step up early and find a way to contribute. Gill might see some innings as well."

Around the infield at first base will probably be a mix of senior Jessica Saporito or sophomore Jaclynn Hess, while second base may be a rotating door with juniors Courtney Allen and Jessie Little having the most experience and practice time, with freshman recruit Kelly Martin also vying for playing time at that spot.

At shortstop, senior Apryl Patterson is back as a three-year starter, but she might move to third base this year.

Also in the mix at short is freshman Sarah Seidel.

At third will be either Patterson, if she makes the switch, or the freshman Martin. Handling the catching duties will be Hess, sophomore Carissa Johnson or freshmen Jenilee Accurso or Brooke Stoner.

"Saporito has not been in the lineup much in the past," Hoying pointed out, "but she has changed her physical and mental aspects of the game and developed into a great player. She and Hess will probably split time at first. Patterson has started for three years and brings something to the game that you can't teach in her reaction time. Martin from Greenville comes from a Division II state runner-up team. We are solid behind the plate with Hess the best all around and Accurso close behind. Our infield is very strong and we have multiple players, so we don't know for sure who will be there."

Three starting letterwinners return in the outfield. In left will be sophomore Kayley Bevard (Tri-Valley), in center is sophomore Hannah Reese and in right field junior Courtney Moyer returns. Freshman Amber Bova is also vying for some playing time in right field and the senior Larkin could see some action as the designated hitter or back up in left field.

Offensively, the Lady Muskies return some consistent hitters that includes some power. Patterson led the team in hitting last year with a .420 average and team-highs 55 hits and 32 runs, while Moyer hit at a .345 clip and slammed seven home had a team-high 28 RBI, including a team-high 16 two-out RBI, with 40 hits, 20 runs and eight doubles runs. Hess, who was honored with the Muskingum William F. Lange Outstanding Freshman Female Athlete award last year, batted at a .389 average with 42 hits, 19 runs, seven doubles and one homer and Reese was at .348 with a pair of homers, 24 hits, 18 runs, five doubles and batted .405 with runners on base and .600 against left-handed pitchers.

"We have consistent hitters and have some power," Hoying stated. "We will move the ball around and all of them are upperclass, experienced players. Reese and Bevard, a left-handed slapper, create speed in our lineup."

Also adding to the Lady Muskies' offensive lineup will be the senior Saporito and the juniors Little and Allen. Little played in 16 games last year with five sacrifice hits, while Allen was in 20 games batting at a .320 clip. Saporito hit .282 a year ago with seven RBI.

Bevard batted .309 last season with 25 hits and 17 runs and turned in a .973 fielding percentage. She proved very efficient in advancing runners on base with a .544 percentage.

The keys to success this year as Hoying views it are the strength of the senior class and the fact that the players have totally bought into the team goals. Another plus is a group of hungry freshmen recruits that are pushing the upperclassmen.

"They tend to thrive off of each other's energy and are enjoying the game," the mentor pointed out. "Our pitching staff has another year under their belt and the seniors really want to get back on the top of the conference. Pitching has been an issue in the past, but Price has brought them along. It is nice to have four coaches with the addition of Steve Cowgill. Our player-to-coach ratio is much smaller and that has been a huge part of why we feel stronger about the season.

"It is all about the kids," she added. "We work at things until we get it right and there are no shortcuts which is the Muskie mentality. Last year it was the small things that kept us out of the playoffs. I am confident both offensively and defensively with no holes in the batting order and no weaknesses in the defense."

Hoying views the OAC race as a free-for-all this year with several teams losing a lot of key players to graduation, but still there will be no walk-over teams in conference play. She points to Otterbein, Mount Union and Marietta as possibly strong teams.

"We have a really good shot to get back to the conference tournament," Hoying observed. "We were so close last year and that sent a message to the girls that they belong there and I think we will be there which helps push the players in practice."

The Lady Muskies open the season today in Kissimmee, Florida against Illinois College as they begin a 12-game southern trip which includes games against Trine University, Simpson College, Roanoke College and Geneva College to name a few.

"We have a good schedule in Florida," Hoying pointed out. "We need to find a set lineup that clicks and plays solid. We need to find out what we do well and what we need to work on. I am very optimistic and have had a lot of fun coaching this spring. It is a different environment and very enjoyable."