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Softball: In pursuit of excellence

CLAIRE C. LAURENCE/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Sophomore shortstop Kristie Fox has become one of the leaders on this year's UA team. Fox is the most recent standout shortstop in the Arizona program following most recently in the footsteps of All-American and Olympic gold medalist Lovieanne Jung.
By Tom Knauer
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, April 21, 2005
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Kristie Fox hates to lose - just ask her siblings.

"Pick-up games with my little sister, basketball, my brother. They're younger than me, but I still can't let them win," Fox said. "I'm too competitive."

"Now they hate to lose as much as I do," she said.

The feisty sophomore is the latest Wildcat shortstop to earn accolades both in the field and at the plate for the No. 3 Arizona softball team, joining recent stars Lovie Jung (2002-2003) and Laura Espinoza (1992-1995).

Now she wants the rest of the Wildcats to follow suit.

"It is hard when we just can't get that one big hit to break the game open," she said. "That's really what we've been focusing on. We're working hard to get confidence at the plate, to make those big hits happen."

Fox, whose eight home runs and 49 RBIs lead the No. 3 Arizona softball team through 37 games, said the idea of continuing a storied legacy at a winning program attracted her to Arizona.

"I just wanted to be a part of this group of amazing athletes," she said. "Following all those wonderful shortstops, I knew that, obviously, they knew a lot about that position and could teach me a lot. I was just working hard to make sure that wasn't a hole in our field."

Mackenzie Vandergeest and Wendy Allen took most of the Wildcats' run production with them after graduating last year, a development Fox said pushed her in the offseason to improve on a solid debut year (.320, nine home runs, 37 RBIs in 60 starts).

"There were really big holes that needed to be filled in our batting lineup," she said. "I mean, Mackenzie and Wendy were amazing hitters, and they picked up a lot of our RBIs and runners last year. I knew that and I worked really hard in the summer and in the fall, knowing that that was going to be my job this year."

Fox erupted out of the gate this year, hitting .432 in February and driving at least 20 runs in the season's first two months.

Though Fox's bat has slowed recently (.263, one home run, nine RBIs in nine Pacific 10 Conference games), those who know her best agree it won't take much to get her going again at the plate.

"She always has really clutch hits, and that's awesome," said junior left fielder Autumn Champion. "The most important thing is when (center fielder) Caitlin (Lowe) gets on, and (Fox) can put the ball in play. That's huge for us."

Fox said her table-setters Lowe (.512, .554 on-base percentage, 23 stolen bases) and Champion (.328 batting average, team-high seven sacrifice hits) have contributed as much to her success this year as anything.

"It's great how it's turning out," Fox said. "They have such good speed on the bases that I don't have to do much to get RBIs."

Fox leads NCAA Division I hitters in runs batted in per game with 1.32, a number that recalls Espinoza's national record 128 RBIs in 72 games in 1995, when she hit 37 of her 85 career home runs.

Arizona assistant coach Larry Ray said Fox's early progress puts her on pace to meet, and perhaps surpass, the work of her predecessors.

"Really, the sky's the limit with Kristie, because she is so good offensively," he said. "She just has to set her mind to the entire part and the entire game for her to get to where her offense is (going). When she does that, really, she can ride her own ticket."

Fox admits a few obstacles still block her road to legend.

"I think I really need to work on pitch selection sometimes," she said. "There's always confidence. You have to be working on your confidence and never losing that."

Little has seemed to faze Fox in her first two years, not even a battle against former Wildcat and two-time national player of the year Jennie Finch.

Finch brought the USA National team to Tucson for an exhibition game March 26, in front of a record 3,541 fans.

The Wildcats lost 6-1, but Fox's solo home run in the second inning was the first and only homer Finch allowed in a 53-game tour.

"A lot of the kids were in awe, especially of Jennie. Kristie's not," Ray said. "She's played a high level of ball, on the (Junior Olympic) team, and she's seen the best. She's very relaxed in that kind of atmosphere."

Ray said he welcomes the likelihood that teams will try to pitch around Fox in the second half of the Pac-10 schedule.

"That puts her on base and give other people opportunities," he said. "As long as we have opportunities, hopefully we can cash in on them."

Indeed, Fox's aggressive nature is already rubbing off on another set of her peers - just ask her teammates.

"She's giving us the key hits," Champion said. "The fact that she's confident up there makes us confident. When you see someone up there who looks scared, it's a little bit difficult to have confidence. The fact that she has confidence in herself makes a big difference."

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