CLEVELAND -- The Kent State softball team has been picked to win the Mid-American Conference East Division title this season, according to the conference's preseason coaches' poll announced Thursday. The Golden Flashes received seven of the 12 first-place votes and also received two votes to win the conference tournament.
Golden Flashes coach Karen Linder returns 13 letterwinners from last year's team that went 16-6 in league play to win the East Division by four games. The Flashes lost their two opening games at the MAC Tournament, however, to finish the season with a 27-21-1 record.
The top of the MAC standings has been a familiar position for Kent State in recent years. From 2004-10, Kent State claimed at least a share of the conference's overall regular-season title three times and has won the East Division in seven of the past 10 seasons.
The Flashes return one of the top pitching staffs in the conference, anchored by 2013 MAC Pitcher of the Year Emma Johnson. The junior led the conference in wins (20), earnedrun average (1.70) and opponent batting average (.194) last season. Senior Lauren McNeil and sophomore Alyssa Frankenfield are also back, as the team loses just 4 1/3 innings from last year's staff.
Junior outfielder Kim Kirkpatrick, an All-MAC Second Team selection, headlines seven returning starters in the field. Kirkpatrick and fellow junior outfielder Dani Ramos were Kent State's top two hitters in several offensive categories last season, including batting average, hits and runs scored. Senior Jessacca Gironda, a Third Team Academic All-American last season, is among the players who will see time in the third outfield spot.
Senior Abbey Ledford is the veteran of a young but experienced and talented infield. Sophomores Michele Duffy, Lauren Kesterson and Shelbi Tilton all started 33 or more games for the Flashes a year ago. Sophomore Erika Warren returns behind the plate, where she started 46 games last season.
2013 MAC Tournament champion Central Michigan was picked to win the West Division and also received four votes to win the conference tournament, which led all schools. Kent State was among three schools that received two votes.
The Flashes begin the season at the Mizuno Invitational this weekend in Long Beach, Calif. Conference play will get under way when they welcome Miami (Ohio) and Ball State to the Diamond at Dix for a three-day, four-game weekend March 28-30.