After coming close to making history last season, the Butler softball team is looking to bounce back and make its first appearance in the NCAA tournament this season.
The team lost only three players to graduation last season and returns an impressive lineup that includes junior Jenny Esparza, the defending Horizon League Pitcher of the Year.
The Bulldogs will also have 2011 All-Horizon League First Team first baseman Erin Falkenberry and outfielder Lauren McNulty back for their senior seasons.
Butler was ranked second behind favorite Illinois-Chicago in the pre-season Horizon League poll.
Falkenberry set the Butler single-season home run record last year with 13 while leading the team with 43 runs batted in. She said the Flames are worthy of being pre-season favorites.
“They won conference last year, and they didn’t lose that many players,” Falkenberry said. “We’re trying to redeem ourselves from last year.”
Esparza said Horizon League opposition will be difficult this year after Butler finished as runner-up to the Flames in last season’s Horizon League tournament.
“I think it’ll be tough,” Esparza said. “There are a lot of returning players from the previous year.
“It’s always hard competition, especially since we did well last year, so we’ve got a big target on our backs.”
The Bulldogs begin the season by playing four games over two days at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., on Feb. 18 and 19.
In those contests, they will face the host Bison and the Samford Bulldogs in two games apiece.
Butler will face its toughest non-conference challenge when it heads to California on March 9 to participate in the 2012 Bayer CropScience Classic at Fresno State.
Among the nationally-ranked teams Butler will face are California currently No. 3 in the ESPN.com USA Softball poll and No. 11 Oregon.
McNulty, who batted .286 and was second on the team with 29 runs batted in last season, said that the two Pac-12 schools will be the Bulldogs’ toughest competition this season.
“Both teams have just had great softball programs in the past, and I know they made it to the regionals last year, so they’re very good softball schools and well respected in the softball culture,” McNulty said. “I think they’ll be our toughest opponents when we’re on the road.”
Coach Scott Hall said the high-caliber competition will give Butler the opportunity to get ready for the Horizon League portion of its schedule later in the season.
“[The non-conference schedule] prepares us and keeps us consistently finding out what we need to improve on,” Hall said. “It gives us an idea of where we’re at right now and what we need to work on.”
The team’s first home game is during a March 19 doubleheader against Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne.
Hall said he hopes the team’s offseason workouts can help the Bulldogs stay focused and keep them from injuries over the course of the season.
“We’ve been doing a lot of conditioning and weight training,” Hall said. “[We are] trying to get our bodies and minds right for the long grind of the season.”