VALDOSTA -- To open the 2003 season, Valdosta State's softball team has jumped into the deep end early in the season.

Last week it was Columbus State and three Gulf South West teams. This week its No. 19 West Florida and most of the Sunshine State Conference.

Last week was two road trips. This week it's home sweet home.

The Blazers (3-2 overall, 2-1 Gulf South) play their first Valdosta game tonight vs. GSC East rival West Florida. Wednesday's doubleheader begins at 5 p.m., with Thursday's single game at 6 p.m. All are at the North Campus Softball Complex.

On Friday, 12 southern teams join VSU for the South Region Crossover. This year all games of the tournament will be played at Freedom Park.

West Florida is one of the traditional powers of the GSC East. It won the group's regular season last year; Valdosta State won the conference tournament title and advanced to the South Regional title game.

"We've always played West Florida early, so we're sticking with it and going to see what happens," said third-year head coach Kendra McDaniel.

West Florida opened the season with the Gulf South Crossover last weekend, beating the same two teams and losing to Delta State as did VSU. Delta State won both games, 2-1, and won all four games during the weekend.

"They'll be the best team out of the west," McDaniel said. "We had some good competition from the other side. It was exciting."

As for the South Region Crossover, the Sunshine State Conference has two ranked teams -- No. 2 Barry and No. 22 Tampa. On the Gulf South side, Alabama-Huntsville is No. 21. And sixth-ranked North Florida, the preseason favorite to win the Peach Belt Conference, will step in and play on the Gulf South side.

Barry beat VSU, 1-0, in the South Regional championship game last May. It is coached by former VSU head coach and McDaniel's boss, Shelly Lis. Barry opened this season with five wins at a Las Vegas tournament, including a 9-1 win over defending national champion St. Mary's.

"This will be an important weekend. Most are off to a strong start, and a couple are ranked nationally," McDaniel said.

As far as the Lady Blazers are concerned, they're a couple of runs from a 5-0 start. Columbus State scored twice in the bottom of the seventh in the opener, and Delta State squeezed in the winning run in the 10th inning.

So far so good for a team playing four newcomers (three freshmen) and having to overcome two injuries.

"So far thing are working out real well," McDaniel said.

Some of the veterans have picked up where they left off last year. Ryann Ellingsworth is hitting a team-leading .421 with three RBI. Ashley Thierer adds a .357 average, while second baseman Tiffany Moon is hitting .333 with three RBI.

Leftfielder Kathy Watkins, a transfer from ABAC, is leading the newcomers, hitting .333.

Ellingsworth, Tonya Coffey and Thierer have stepped in at third base to replace junior college transfer Jessie Ortiz, out with a circulatory condition in a leg which required surgery last month. Freshman Linsey Walker (Ware County) has replaced junior Krista Kneuer, out after fall knee surgery.

The Blazers return two veteran pitchers, senior Angela Lauzon (1-1, 2.57 ERA) and junior Brooke King (2-1, 1.53 ERA). Freshman Jessica Madick was a late add to the squad, and McDaniel hopes to work her into the rotation as the season goes on.

This team has already been given some incentive. It was picked to finish third in the GSC East and received votes in the preseason poll.

"We have something to play for," McDaniel said. "I hope our new lineup proves as good as last year's."



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