With a pair of returning All-Region players, including the North Coast Athletic Conference player of the year, and a host of other key returnees, expectations were certainly high for the Allegheny softball team in 2008.

Little, however, went according to plan.

Allegheny did accomplish one goal by winning the NCAC regular season title, but saw its season end abruptly thanks to a pair of losses to fourth seed Hiram in the NCAC tournament. The losses denied the Gators a return trip to the NCAA Division III tournament where they were looking to improve on a 1-2 finish the year before.

Disappointing? Definitely. But that performance last season has only made the Lady Gators more excited about 2009.

“We’re very excited,” Allegheny head coach Sandra Sanford said. “We’re excited on a couple different levels.

“We’re excited to get started after a rough winter. But more important, we’re excited about what’s in store for us, I think.

“There’s just a lot of good energy and excitement. And I think that has a lot to do with the bitter taste we have in our months from last season’s finish. We’re really excited.”

The Lady Gators enter this season in a similar position as last year.

Allegheny did lose two valuable seniors, including two-time NCAC player of the year Abby Bodenlos, but return nearly everyone else. That includes 2008 NCAC newcomer of the year Marci Potuzko, All-NCAC first teamer Rachel Ryan and All-NCAC second team picks Maggie Bodenlos and Amanda Downey.

“This team has the ability to do some great things,” Sanford said. “We have a lot of veteran players who have won the tournament, missed out on getting to the tournament and lost the tournament. They’ve had a taste of all of it and I think they like the winning part of it much better.”

One of the keys for the Gators this season will be its experience.

The Gators still have just two seniors on their roster. But with the exception of the six freshmen, the majority of the rest have seen ample playing time. The first of those players is Ryan.

Ryan will anchor the middle of the Gators’ defense once again as the shortstop. Ryan batted a team-high .449 last season with 33 RBIs, 28 runs, 12 doubles and two home runs.

At least for now, Ryan will be joined in the infield by Maggie Bodenlos at third base, Rebecca Burns at first base and freshman Allison Piper at second base. Potuzko will again be behind the plate doing the catching.

In the outfield, Liz Burr returns to right field with Katie Wills back in center field. Sara Doan will take over for the graduated Sarah Reilly in left field. Sanford said freshman Bessie Artino is competing for time at first base and catcher. Fellow freshman Felicia Gowanlock is also likely to figure into the mix primarily as a catcher, but perhaps the outfield as well.

Union City graduate Courtney Alderman and sophomore Sharon Dudek will also be competing for playing time.

That leaves just one question. What about the pitching staff?

“I am really looking forward to how our pitching staff pans out,” Sanford said. “We have a very talented staff overall.”

That staff will be led by last year’s workhorse Amanda Downey. Downey pitched 164.2 innings last season, allowing 174 hits and 44 walks with 82 strikeouts. She finished with an ERA of 3.39.

Joining Downey will be a pair of freshmen, one of which needs no introduction locally. That is Cambridge Springs graduate Stephanie Baer, a three-time Meadville Tribune player of the year, who led the Spa to back-to-back District 10 championships in 2007 and 08.

The last of the trio is Stacey Robertshaw of Easthampton, N.J.

Allegheny begins its season Friday at the Beach Blast Tournament at Virginia Wesleyan. The Gators will play their first game at 2 p.m. against Lynchburg, ranked No. 8 in the Preseason National Fast-pitch Coaches Association Division III Top 25 Poll. Allegheny will then play Salisbury at 4 p.m. On Saturday, the Gators will take on Stevenson at 10 a.m. and Polytechnic Institute of New York at 2 p.m. to conclude their first spring trip.

“This is an opportunity for us to gauge where we are against some of the top teams in the country,” Sanford said. “In years past, we’ve headed down there like, ‘Oh, boy. Here we go. Let’s give it our best shot.’ But there’s a different feeling facing (the trip) this year. I really think we can play with anybody.”

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