With only three players returning from last season's Sooner Athletic Conference championship season, the OBU softball team will try to reload by replacing key players throughout the lineup.
"We've brought in good players and they have to make an impact right away," said coach Pam Fink. "And we have to stay healthy."
The 2003 squad finished seventh nationally, but graduated five starters, including two of the best pitchers in school history in All-American Kena Freeman and Alissa Baxter, both of whom had 20-win seasons. Also gone are All-Region shortstop Kim Huxford, 2002 All-National Tournament outfielder Jessica Impson and 2003 All-Tournament first baseman Brooke Bryan.
"I don't think I've ever seen a stronger senior class than that and it leaves a tremendous void," Fink said.
The team was also hurt by late defections. Seven underclassmen did not return due to injuries and personal decisions.
"We have three players back and they're gritty kids," said Fink.
All-American Katy Thurber returns at third base. The junior from Bixby has led the OBU women in batting in each of her two seasons thus far. In two seasons she already rates among career leaders in home runs (fourth) and RBI (eighth).
"Katy is going to shoulder a lot of responsibility this year and I think she's ready for it," said Fink. "She works hard and she's going to have to have another big season."
Honorable mention All-America catcher Krista Doell, a senior from Saskatoon, Sask., had surgery on both knees in the fall. She made the move to shortstop in the fall season, but the OBU staff has yet to settle on a position for her this spring.
Right fielder and pitcher Kenna Morris, a senior from Corpus Christi, Texas, will be called on again as an outfield starter this season.
OBU will add basketball standout Mandi Farris, an All-State infielder at Bethel High School, once the senior's Bison hoops season is concluded in March.
Five players make up the pitching staff and Fink is hopeful that two will emerge as clear starters. Morris is joined this season by sophomore Amanda Zahara, junior Kayla Jones and freshmen Krystal Mills and Lindsay Eller.
Zahara transfers from Jackson State University, while Jones joins the staff after two years at Vernon College. That duo is the preseason favorite as starters but Mills, a freshman from Norman North High School, will make them work to hold that position.
Eller, who came to OBU on a junior varsity scholarship, could see more action at first base.
The middle infield is the big question mark entering the season as two transfers expected to contribute were not eligible. The January signing of Chloe Brown gives OBU its likely 2004 shortstop. Brown is a freshman from Rocky Mountain House, Alberta.
The outfield will include speedy Donna Ulrickson, a transfer from Bradley University, and Meeker freshman Alyse Martinez, with either Morris or Mills holding down right field.
"Donna has a chance to be contribute a great deal in all aspects of the game," said Fink. "Alyse is developing into a complete player. She showed a little pop at the plate last fall."
OBU faces a difficult challenge in the Sooner Athletic Conference as the Lady Bison try to overcome a lack of depth at key positions.
"Our numbers are down, but I think we'll still be pretty tough. I expect us to make it to the NAIA Tournament again," Fink said.
The Lady Bison open Feb. 20-21 with the OBU Classic. The OBU women play Missouri Valley College at 10 a.m., Oklahoma Wesleyan at noon and College of St. Mary (Neb.) at 4 p.m. on Feb. 20.