Huff helps Tennessee to top spot

Huff helps Tennessee to top spot
Saugus alum Tuffany Huff is batting .402 for Tennessee. (Saugus High)
Since the implementation of Title IX in 1972, sporting opportunities for women at the high school and collegiate levels have steadily increased.

Every sport has seen a spike, but softball, in particular, seems to be one of the biggest growers — at least when it comes to former high school athletes from the Southland.

By our count, there are more than 500 players with local ties playing at the Division I level this season.

Here is a look at how some of those athletes are helping teams ranked in the top 10 of the latest USA Today/NFCA poll:

•  No. 1 Tennessee (40-2): The Lady Vols have lost only to Florida and Mississippi this season in the second games of doubleheaders and are on a 15-game winning streak. Three freshmen have been key contributors, led by designated player Tiffany Huff (Saugus HS). Huff, who recently returned from ankle surgery, has started all 32 games in which she has played, is third-best in average (.402) and is tied for the team lead in RBIs (37). The team's other two freshmen locals are infielder/outfielder Nicole Kajitani (San Bernardino Cajon HS) and outfielder Erinn Webb (Hemet HS), who have played in 36 and 30 games, respectively. Kajitani is batting .271 with nine RBIs and Webb is hitting .192 with eight RBIs. Sophomore Jennifer Griffin (Whittier California HS) is right behind Huff in average at .397, but the third baseman has sat out the last 15 games because of an unspecified violation of team policy. Coincidentally, another local, Kenora Posey (L.A. Crenshaw HS), has played the last eight games at third base in place of Griffin. Posey, who also plays second base, is the team's sixth-leading hitter at .313.

•  No. 3 Alabama (37-4): The Crimson Tide has lost only to Georgia, Florida and a doubleheader to Louisiana State. One of the team's top freshmen has been pitcher/first baseman Charlotte Morgan (Moreno Valley Valley View HS). Morgan has the highest average (.367) of any freshman on the roster and has started 38 games. She also has seven home runs and 27 RBIs. Morgan hit her first grand slam in a 10-2 win over Georgia last weekend. In the circle, Morgan has contributed a 7-2 record in 12 appearances, including seven starts, with a 2.13 earned-run average. She also has 39 strikeouts and nine walks in 46 innings. Morgan has earned Southeastern Conference freshman of the week three times this season.

•  No. 4 Oklahoma (38-4): The Sooners continue to climb and it's been largely because of the bat of senior utility player Norrelle Dickson (Orange El Modena HS). Dickson leads the Big 12 Conference in batting with a .504 average. She also leads the conference in hits (62) and runs scored (53), and is fourth in stolen bases (25), second in on-base percentage (.604) and eighth in slugging percentage (.650). Oklahoma also is the top hitting team in the conference with a .328 average. Another key has been sophomore infielder Traci Dickenson (Placentia El Dorado HS), who is the team's second-leading run producer with 34 RBIs. Senior outfielder Amber Spaulding (Rancho Cucamonga Etiwanda HS) has been a spot starter in the outfield and a late-innings replacement, batting .253 this season.

•  No. 5 Arizona (26-8): The Wildcats are coming off a weekend split with UCLA and two locals have been at the forefront of their success. All-American senior outfielder Caitlin Lowe (Santa Ana Foothill HS) and junior pitcher Taryne Mowatt (Corona Santiago HS) are the keys. Lowe has a team-leading .445 average in 33 games and also leads the Wildcats in runs (37), hits (49) and on-base percentage (.488). The U.S. national team player also has not made an error in the field and is 30 for 30 on stolen-base attempts. Mowatt, The Times' softball player of the year in 2004, is Arizona's leader in the pitching circle. Mowatt is 19-7 with a 1.77 ERA in 30 games. She has 253 strikeouts in 165 2/3 innings.

•  No. 6 Louisiana State (37-5): The Tigers have won 15 of 16 games heading into this weekend's series against South Carolina. Up the middle, LSU has been led by a pair of locals in junior shortstop Andrea Smith (Moreno Valley Valley View HS) and junior second baseman Shannon Stein (Upland HS). Smith has started all 42 games this season and is batting .213 with 14 runs scored and 12 RBIs. Stein has played in 24 games, having been hampered by broken fingers and sitting out five weeks because of them. She returned to the lineup March 28 in a victory over McNeese State. Stein is batting .271 with 15 runs and seven RBIs.

•  No. 7 Arizona State (36-8): When you think of the Sun Devils, you start with sophomore outfielder Kaitlin Cochran (Fullerton Rosary HS), who is the only player on the roster to start all 44 games this season. Not only is Cochran an iron woman, she leads the team with a .516 average. But it doesn't end there. Cochran also leads in runs (48), hits (64), doubles (12), home runs (11), stolen bases (22), walks (28), slugging percentage (.911) and on-base percentage (.613). Cochran, the Pacific 10 Conference freshman of the year in 2006, also is second in RBIs with 42. In the pitching circle, junior Katie Burkhart (San Luis Obispo HS) has been effective. Burkhart has a record of 18-6 and 0.94 ERA in 28 appearances. She has given up only 72 hits in 156 1/3 innings and has 272 strikeouts and only 32 walks. Four other locals contribute to the Sun Devils, led by junior second baseman Mindy Cowles (Riverside Poly HS), who has started all 43 games in which she has appeared. Cowles is batting .293 with six home runs and 31 RBIs. Senior catcher Heidi Knabe (Simi Valley HS) has played in 20 games and is batting .311, junior catcher Kristen Miller (Diamond Bar HS/Long Beach State) has played in 28 games and is batting .190, and senior third baseman Marisa Trevino (Fullerton HS) has played in nine games and is batting .154. Arizona State plays a huge series this weekend against Arizona at Tucson.

•  No. 8 Northwestern (28-7): All-American senior first baseman Garland Cooper (Santa Margarita HS) hit two home runs Tuesday in a 6-1 win over Northern Illinois to tie the single-season school record with 14. Cooper, the Big Ten Conference player of the year in 2006, is batting .400 with a team-leading 45 RBIs for the Wildcats and an .838 slugging percentage. Garland has 46 career home runs. Another local isn't playing quite as much but recently had a big moment. Sophomore infielder Gina Gonzalez (La Verne Bonita HS) has played in only seven games this season for the Wildcats but is batting .375 with two home runs and six RBIs in eight at-bats. Gonzalez launched her second three-run homer of the season in a 12-1 win over Columbia College on March 18

•  No. 9 Texas (26-9): The Longhorns are having a solid season and challenging Oklahoma in the Big 12. The only local is infielder Kelly Melone (Anaheim Loara HS), who has played at first base, second base and third base this season but struggled at the plate a bit. Melone has played in 23 games and is batting .154 with one home run and five RBIs. The last game in which Melone played was a 6-5 loss in eight innings to Penn State on March 16 in the Judi Garman Classic at Cal State Fullerton. In that game, Melone hit a three-run homer.

•  No. 10 Michigan (28-6): Junior outfielder Alessandra Giampaolo (Pasadena Poly HS) leads the Wolverines with a .444 average and also has scored a team-leading 48 runs with 16 doubles, one home run and 14 RBIs. That total ranks third on the team as Michigan's balanced offense has eight players in double figures in RBIs with the leader being junior catcher Tiffany Worthy (Orange Lutheran HS) at 18. Worthy has played in 30 games and is batting .299. Neither Giampaolo nor Worthy has made an error this season.

"From Here to There" is a weekly web-exclusive column that appears Wednesdays. If you are aware of a former area prep standout competing in sports and excelling at the collegiate level or elsewhere, please let us know. Send any leads, tips or ideas to: jim.barrero