Pitching and defense should hold the keys for Miami's softball Lady Wardogs this season.

“We return quite a few starters and have all three pitchers (Veronica Arizpe, Lacey Morgan and Kelsey Neal) back and both catchers (Jessica Kelly and Shelby Jurgensmeyer), so we feel real good, said Miami coach Chris Mercer.

The Lady Wardogs open the season Tuesday at home with Claremore. That starts a run that will have them playing at least 15 games in the next three weeks.

“We will get tested early, Mercer said. “That is something we need to do - find out early and find out what we need to work on to get better.

The Lady Wardogs had three tune-ups before the opener.

They hosted Wyandotte Wednesday and were at Adair Thursday before wrapping up the scrimmage schedule Saturday at Owasso, where they faced Sand Springs, Berryhill and Oktaha.

“We played really, really bad that first scrimmage against Wyandotte, Mercer said. “We were not ready to play. We were flat. But against Adair, we played a lot better. We ran it like a 7-inning game and we won 4-3.

After opening with Claremore, the Lady Wardogs host Jay Thursday, enter the Oologah Festival Friday and travel to Claremore Sequoyah on Saturday.

Then next week, they have games with Vinita, Commerce and Westville and Kansas in the Jay Festival.

“Our first eight games will be really tough, Mercer said. “Claremore definitely will be tough, Jay is playing well and I am sure we will play a couple good teams at Oologah.

The Lady Wardogs finished 2006 with a 21-17 record, the season ending with a 9-2 loss to Claremore Sequoyah in 4A regional play at Grove.

During the first round, the Lady Wardogs suffered a tough 4-3 loss to Grove in a game that saw the Lady Ridgerunners score three runs in the bottom of the seventh inning.

Then in an elimination game, Kyrie Panter drove in Courtnei Young with the game winner with none out in the bottom of the eighth as Miami claimed a 7-6 decision.

Then in the loss to Sequoyah, the Lady Wardogs and SHS battled to a scoreless draw until the fourth. The Lady Eagles got all of their runs in the final four innings.

Arizpe and Morgan have split the pitching chores the previous two years and anchor the pitching staff.

“They have improved, Mercer said. “We are looking at three that can go at any time. In the past, we've always just had one.

Neal made a handful of spot starts for the Lady Wardogs as a freshman.

“She has worked hard all summer - she has come a long ways, Mercer said.

Kelly and Jurgensmeyer platooned behind the plate for the Lady Wardogs in 2006. Mercer said whoever doesn't start as catcher will likely be in the lineup in another position.

There's a number of possibilities on the infield.

4 Neal and Arizpe will rotate at first base when the other isn't pitching.

4 Kelly, Jurgensmeyer or Morgan will get the starting nod at second base.

Emily Cline has moved in from center field and will fill the gap created by the graduation of four-year starter Kyrie Panter at shortstop. Cline started three years in center.

Young returns at third base. She will be spotted by Morgan.

Melanie Blackburn in right is the only returnee in the outfield.

Either Kelly, Morgan or freshman Hayden Rowland will get the starting nod in center and left fields.

“We can be dangerous, but will have to get better as the year goes on, Mercer said. “That is something we need to work on. Our strength will be pitching and defense.