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'Noles' arm strength a post-season plus

A trio of talented starters forms the foundation for Florida State's hopes for a World Series berth.

By BRIAN LANDMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 17, 2001


The Florida State softball team last advanced to the College World Series in 1993, but as it begins play in today's NCAA Region tournament at home, that goal seems to be within arm's reach.

That could be the arm belonging to hard-throwing junior right-hander Leslie Malerich, crafty senior righty Jennifer White-Stokes or even freshman left-hander Jessica van der Linden. Each is ranked in the nation's Top 16 in ERA, combining for a 0.70 -- second only to Pac-10 power Arizona.

A weak link?

Not even TV game show host Anne Robinson could single one out in this bunch.

"They've all done a great job for us," FSU coach JoAnne Graf said. "They're the reason we're where we are today."

Opponents have scored more than two runs in a game only eight times.

That kind of domination begins with Malerich (22-3, 0.70 ERA, 12 shutouts), the ACCplayer of the year. "Last year, if a pitch wasn't working, I'd force that pitch and continue to throw it," Malerich said. "And they would hit it. This year, I've realized, 'Okay. I can't throw that pitch; it's not working today. Let's try to figure out something.' "

White-Stokes (19-4, 0.65 ERA) had injury-plagued sophomore and junior seasons that affected her physically and mentally. Those struggles have served as motivation.

"I wanted to let them know I can pitch somewhat," said White-Stokes, who is from Tuttle, Okla., and would like nothing more than to end her career a 45-minute drive from the College World Series home in Oklahoma City.

"If the NCAA had a comeback player of the year award, it would be her," Graf said.

White-Stokes also is hitting .344, second on the team and 60 points higher than her career mark.

Van der Linden (13-3, 0.78 ERA) is a former standout for the Puerto Rican national team. She starts in the outfield when not pitching and is third on the team in hitting (.315, 33 RBI), and could be a wild card in the post-season.

Top teams typically have a clear ace and a capable No. 2 pitcher, but few have as talented a trio. That depth could loom large in the region tournament, especially given the contrasting styles of each.

Malerich relies on power; she has 139 strikeouts. White-Stokes is the finesse pitcher and van der Linden is a hybrid of the two. Their differences make it difficult for opponents to prepare or get into a comfort zone at the plate in any given series.

"They can give people different looks and they don't have to show their No. 1 all the time; they can save her or use her to close a game," said North Carolina coach Donna Papa, whose Tar Heels beat FSU for the ACC tournament title but mustered four earned runs in 341/3 innings.

"We can prepare for Malerich, but if they throw White-Stokes in, it's going to throw our hitters off a little bit. Or they can go in reverse and bring Malerich in relief or van der Linden. It gives them a good balance, and that's nice to have."

But while each is a handful individually, each player's greatest strength is her grasp of unity.

"There's always competition, but it's good competition," van der Linden said. "It makes each of us better. We give each other so much encouragement, it's so awesome."

Florida State and Florida

WHEN/WHERE: Today-Sunday, Seminole Softball Complex, Tallahassee.

FIRST-ROUND MATCHUPS: No. 1 seed Florida State (54-10) vs. No. 6 Bethune-Cookman (45-21), 5:30 p.m.; No. 2 California (49-14) vs. No. 5 Connecticut (35-21), 12:30 p.m.; No. 3 Florida Atlantic (45-19) vs. No. 4 Florida (36-25), 3 p.m.

AT STAKE: The winner joins seven other region champions in Oklahoma City for the College World Series on May 24-28.

FORMAT: Double elimination.

OF NOTE: FSU is 24-2 at home and 7-1 against teams in the region. ... The Gators are the first team in SEC history to go 0-2 in the league tournament and receive a bid to the NCAA Tournament. ... FAU junior Nicole Myers, a former St. Petersburg High star, leads her team in hitting (.379, 19 HR, 49 RBI) and pitching (25-11, 0.53 ERA). She's fifth nationally in ERA.

WHAT FSU HAS TO DO: The Seminoles' dominating pitching is a given. The question mark is hitting. In the ACC Tournament, North Carolina senior Radara McHugh beat the Seminoles twice, including in the championship game. She held them to one run (unearned) in 14 innings. The Seminoles must improve their hitting, no easy task given the quality of pitching will improve at this stage.

WHAT UF HAS TO DO: The Gators finished fairly well down the stretch of the regular season, including a win at South Carolina (a No. 3 seed) and a two-game sweep at South Florida (a No. 4 seed), only to falter offensively in the SEC Tournament. Somehow, a team hitting .270 must improve dramatically. Although senior right-hander Renise Landry has a 2.30 ERA, hurting her own cause with 107 walks, she won two games in last year's regional and that experience should help.

ADMISSION: A tournament pass costs $10 for adults and $6 for students and youths (12 and under). Single-game tickets, which go one sale at the Softball Complex one hour before game time, cost $5 for adults, $3 for students and $2 for youths. -- Compiled by Brian Landman.

South Florida

WHEN/WHERE: Today-Sunday, Tuscaloosa, Ala.

FIRST-ROUND MATCHUPS: No. 1 seed Alabama (48-9) vs. No. 6 Illinois-Chicago (46-23), 1 p.m.; No. 2 Michigan (39-15-1) vs. No. 5 Chattanooga (33-14), 3:30 p.m.; No. 3 Oregon State (42-22-1) vs. No. 4 South Florida (41-32), 6 p.m.

AT STAKE: The winner joins seven other region champions in Oklahoma City for the College World Series on May 24-28.

FORMAT: Double elimination.

OF NOTE: This is the first time since 1998 that the USF softball team has advanced to the NCAA Tournament; Oregon State is making its third consecutive appearance. South Florida and Oregon State met twice this season, splitting a doubleheader. Three of the six teams in this region are ranked nationally: Alabama (No. 7), Oregon State (No. 14) and Michigan (No. 21). Michigan's Melissa Taylor is the third best hitter in the nation, batting .452. Alabama's Kelly Kretschman is sixth (.448) and Jackie McClain is 12th (.432).

WHAT USF HAS TO DO: Rely on strong pitching and solid defense, and hope for good hitting. Jessi Kowal is 22-13 with a 0.99 ERA, and freshman Cindy Turek is 5-3. Renee Oursler leads the team with a .348 batting average, but the Bulls will need production from everyone to combat second-team All-Conference pitcher Crystal Draper, who leads the Beavers with a 1.19 ERA and 188 strikeouts in 252 innings. -- Compiled by Antonya English.

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