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Spring college softball preview

Minnesota Duluth Coach: Jen Banford, second season 2006 record: 25-20, 3-9 North Central Conference Current record: 9-11 Conference opener: Sunday at Nebraska-Omaha Key returners: Gina Zech (Jr., 1B), Ellen Colby (Sr., C), Nikki Jensen (Sr., OF),...

Minnesota Duluth

Coach: Jen Banford, second season

2006 record: 25-20, 3-9 North Central Conference

Current record: 9-11

Conference opener: Sunday at Nebraska-Omaha

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Key returners: Gina Zech (Jr., 1B), Ellen Colby (Sr., C), Nikki Jensen (Sr., OF), Jess Horne (Jr., P) and Myriam Trepanier (So., OF).

Outlook: The Bulldogs didn't have any seniors last year but that doesn't mean the entire team is back, as several players left after Banford's first season, part of what she called a natural turnover under a new coach. They've been replaced by a talented class of seven freshmen and junior college transfer Sonja Muck. The freshmen class includes Sarah Kabes, local products Val Hartel (Hermantown) and Whitney Olson (Proctor), and up-and-coming 5-foot-11 pitcher Kristin Danielson, who is 5-4 with a 1.27 ERA while splitting time with Horne on the mound. The team has struggled to hit for average, batting .246, but has shown glimpses. UMD lost 1-0 to defending NCAA Division II national champion Lock Haven (Pa.) on the Bulldogs' spring trip, one year after being one of only three teams to beat the Bald Eagles. UMD has only two seniors, Colby and Jensen. "We're still young, but we're not using that as an excuse. Every game we've competed and know what it takes to win," Banford said. "It's definitely been an easier transition this year. The players know what to expect this year and I know what to expect of UMD. Each year we look to get stronger with our recruiting classes and on any given day we can compete with anybody."

St. Scholastica

Coach: Jen Walter, eighth season

2006 record: 37-9, 14-0 Upper Midwest Athletic Conference

Current record: 6-8

Conference opener: Wednesday at Northwestern

Key returners: NCAA Division III third-team All-American Erica (Bond) Kozacek (Sr., OF), Rilee Dawson (Sr., P/1B), Amy Jansen (So., P) and Gina Garramone (So., C).

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Outlook: The Saints have a lot of new faces, with Kozacek the only returning starter from a team that advanced to the NCAA Division III regionals. CSS graduated one of the most talented classes in school history, led by Laura Heise, Division III's all-time strikeout leader and an exceptionally talented hitter. St. Scholastica was the preseason favorite to win its ninth straight regular season UMAC title. The Saints have gone a combined 39-1 in conference play the last three years and have won five straight UMAC postseason tournament titles. Dawson and Jansen have split time on the mound, with Jansen throwing harder but with less control. Garramone (.500) , Dawson (.389, 12 RBIs) and Kozacek (366, 13 RBIs) lead the team in hitting, while Chelsey Weiss (.319, 12 R) is part of a class of seven freshmen and has emerged in the leadoff spot. "Last year's group set pretty much every record in our book over the last four years and you can't replace them, and you're not trying to," Walter said. "This team has talent, but it's just going to take a little time for them to find themselves."

Wisconsin-Superior

Coach: Roger Plachta, seventh season

2006 record: 22-16, 7-5 Wisconsin Intercollegiate AthleticConference

Current record: 10-8

Conference opener: April 14 at Wisconsin-Whitewater

Key returners: Senior captains and 2006 all-conference selections Erin Kegley (2B), Katie Moench (SS) and honorable mention Jamie Lovstad (C).

Outlook: The Yellowjackets are picked to finish fourth in the WIAC after returning seven starters and losing only three letterwinners. Three-time defending champion Wisconsin-Eau Claire is the preseason conference favorite and was ranked fifth nationally to start the season. UWS got the only other first-place vote in the WIAC preseason poll. ... UWS has played tougher competition on its annual Florida spring trip in recent years to better prepare for an always-difficult conference schedule, with sophomores Jen Reid and Nichole Tessier have logged the majority of innings on the mound. Plachta also tries to schedule as many games as possible on the trip, knowing Northland weather. "I don't know if we're ever going to play a home game," Plachta joked during Tuesday's snowstorm. "I figured we could get rained out, but not snowed out."

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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