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NORMAL - Just juniors entering today's Illinois State softball season opener in the Coastal Carolina Tournament, pitchers Stacy Birk and Shannon Nicholson already have appeared in a combined 138 games.

That experience and the pair's continued improvement have ISU coach Melinda Fischer optimistic Birk and Nicholson will be cornerstones to a successful season.

"They've got to set the stage," said Fischer, who enters her 21st season as Redbird coach. "They both need to show leadership and consistency. The desire has always been there."

Nicholson was 15-12 with a 1.53 ERA, while Birk was 16-9 with an ERA of 2.13 last season as ISU posted a 31-21 record.

Senior Sheila Emms and freshman Amber Smith add to the pitching depth.

"We've made some improvements in this area, and they're starting to pay off," Fischer said. "Our three older pitchers have thrown a lot of innings, and they're really the core of the team."

Offensively, leadership must come from the senior trio of Olympia High School graduate Tricia Gaither, Katie Guilbault and Randi Patton.

Gaither will be at third base after batting .252 last spring. Guilbault batted .235 and will play first base, while Patton is the team's top returning hitter at .304 and will be in center field.

"I do think we have some good offensive potential," said Fischer. "It depends on who is in the lineup. At times, we could be a very strong power team, and at other times we may survive on base hits. We have to have a good short game. We have some speed we can rely on in running situations."

Nebraska-Omaha transfer Kelsey Warning should provide an offensive boost and will play right field.

"Kelsey brings in a lot of confidence," Fischer said. "We graduated a lot of our bats. To replace those, collectively we have to get people to step up."

Another Olympia product, sophomore Tiffany Prager, will take over for graduated standout Kate Stake at second base after seeing part-time action in the outfield last season.

The Redbirds could start as many as four freshmen in catcher Casey Gorrell, shortstop Kaprice Williams, left fielder Jessie Buker and Smith at designated player.

"Casey Gorrell definitely can add spark to the offense," Fischer said. "Buker had a big bat for us in the fall. We'll be using her all over the place."

Senior Jen Wright also has catching experience.

Jackie Williams also figures to see time in the outfield, while sophomore Christy Colgan and freshmen Katie Thoennes and Jessica Wapotish also could be factors. Thoennes is a Normal Community graduate.

In today's action at the Coastal Carolina Tournament in Conway, S.C., ISU meets third-ranked Tennessee at 1 p.m. and the host school at 6 p.m.

See Scoreboard for schedule, roster

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