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Archive for Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Woodling: Kansas women struggling

February 6, 2007

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Not that many people have noticed, but this has been a stinko year from a win-loss standpoint for Kansas University women's athletics.

Some might argue, but I would rank soccer, volleyball, basketball and softball as KU's most visible women's sports. You probably could include track, too, because it also is a spectator sport, but I'll stick with the other four.

I certainly wouldn't include cross country, the most difficult sport in the world to watch (with the possible exception of the biathlon), even if KU's female runners reinforced the theme of this column by finishing 11th in the league championships at Rim Rock Farm.

Soccer was OK last fall. Mark Francis' team finished fourth in the Big 12 Conference and posted an 11-7-1 overall record. Still, the soccer season ended on a sour note when the Jayhawks were snubbed by the NCAA.

Volleyball was, in a word, awful. Coach Ray Bechard's club lost its last 10 matches and finished tied for last place in the Big 12 standings with Kansas State. The Jayhawks won only three of their 20 conference duels.

Basketball has been, in a word : well, I've already used that word to describe volleyball. Coach Bonnie Henrickson's team is in danger of plodding through the league season without a win. At best, the Jayhawks might finish in 10th or 11th place.

That leaves softball, and, to be honest, the prospects are not bright, not with coach Tracy Bunge in a position where she must replace about 95 percent of her offense.

Of that 95 percent, about 60 percent was Serena Settlemier, who established school records for home runs, runs batted in and slugging percentage during her storybook 2006 season.

"I don't recall ever losing my two, three, four, five and six hitters," Bunge said Monday. "This year's team has a different feel, a different look."

Fortunately, Bunge still has Kassie Humphreys, one of the nation's top hurlers, and, in a game dominated by pitching, Humphreys' presence is reason enough to expect KU softball won't swoon like volleyball and basketball did.

Still, regardless of how Bunge's bunch fares, it's clear KU softball has one thing in common with both its volleyball and basketball sisters: transition.

This happens to be one of those school years when all three programs were hit hard by graduation. College athletics revolves in four-year cycles, and rare is the team that is equally divided among seniors, juniors, sophomores and freshmen.

Also rare is the coach who can win with predominantly freshmen. Bill Self did it with the KU men's basketball team last season - the Bradley game notwithstanding - and he's winning again this year with mostly sophomores.

Let's face it, though. It's much easier for tradition-rich KU men's basketball to reload than it is for the Jayhawks' relatively infant women's programs.

Whether a KU women's program ever will achieve the status of men's basketball is debatable. Many variables are involved, not the least of which is the ability to generate gate revenue, the age-old chicken-or-egg question.

Of one aspect, however, we are certain. Thanks to Title IX, women's college sports are here to stay.

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