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Hope springs eternal for Red Storm softball team

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After her team finished in fifth place in the Big East conference last year, missing out on the four-team conference tournament on the final day of regular season play, St. John’s softball coach Melody Cope figured that with a majority of her team returning, the Red Storm would be ranked relatively high in the preseason coaches poll.

She was wrong.

St. John’s is picked to finish eighth out of the conference’s 11 teams and the second-year coach is using that as motivation. Even Syracuse, a second-year program, is picked to finish higher than the Red Storm.

“Most people look at what we did last year as more of a fluke,” Cope said. “They don’t think St. John’s deserves the respect yet. Most look at some of our wins and see them as a fluke, that’s why we didn’t get recognized.”

And to an extent, Cope understands the faux pas. There isn’t exactly a rich, winning tradition at St. John’s. In 20 years of Red Storm softball, there have only been nine winning seasons. Last year the Red Storm finished 26-24, the first season of .500 ball since 1992, when Bob Pinto led St. John’s to a 25-21-1 mark.

“My expectations are very high,” Cope said. “Sometimes the girls look at me like I have two heads because there hasn’t been that winning tradition at St. John’s. I want to change that mindset. We can win and we should expect to win.”

Cope returns all nine starters from last year’s team which finished with an 8-8 Big East mark. Leading the charge on the mound is senior Gina Calabrese, who shattered almost every St. John’s pitching record last year. Joining Calabrese, who recorded six shutouts and had a 1.71 earned run average, is sophomore Courtney Fitzgerald from Bellerose.

The former Mary Louis Academy standout had a stellar freshman campaign, finishing with a 2.26 ERA in 136.1 innings pitched in 22 games. Freshman Kate Cucciniello rounds out the staff.

“Both of them have the ability to do what it takes to win in the Big East,” Cope said. “Courtney should have gained a lot of confidence from her freshman year. When we play better competition, those two rise to the occasion.”

St. John’s, which is 9-13 through the non-conference slate and open Big East play March 31 at No. 14 Notre Dame, should be solid defensively, especially with the entire infield, consisting of Jessica Shepherd at third, Tiffany Howerton at shortstop, Alesha Argeras — who is currently out of the lineup recovering from hip surgery — at second and first baseman Ann Raab.

With starting centerfielder Amy Crook recovering from elbow surgery, freshman Jessica Dima is getting on-the-job training in center, while Lauren Fisher returns to leftfield and Cecelia Baston and Marilyn Brown will share time in rightfield.

While the team’s defense should be its strength, the Red Storm may struggle at the plate. The team is currently batting .205.

“We’re not a speed team, we would definitely be considered a power hitting team,” Cope said. “The problem right now is we’re not getting the hits when we need it.”

Reach Associate Sports Editor Dylan Butler by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 143.

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