Coming off a stellar 2004 softball season that saw Tennessee establish a team record for victories (55), climb as high as 10th in the national rankings, pick up the program’s first Southeastern Conference Eastern Division title since 1999 and advance to NCAA Regional play, the Lady Vol softball program continued its rise to prominence on Tuesday by achieving the highest preseason ranking in program history at 13th in the initial release of the ESPN.com/USA Softball Top-25 Collegiate Poll.  Sophomore pitching sensation Monica Abbott led the way for the Orange and White during her 2004 rookie campaign by posting one of the most dominating debut seasons in history.  The Salinas, Calif., native registered a nation-leading 45 victories and 582 strikeouts with a miniscule 1.03 ERA en route to becoming the initial first-team Louisville Slugger/National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) All-American in Lady Vol history.  Her strikeout total eclipsed the national freshman strikeout record formerly held by current Texas junior and U.S. Olympian Cat Osterman.  Junior Kristi Durant continued adding to her resume by becoming the first Lady Vol to achieve first-team All-SEC status twice in a career.  The Placentia, Calif., native led the way offensively for Tennessee for the second-straight season by compiling a .350 batting average.  She also ranked second on the squad in hits (71), on-base percentage (.416), total bases (89) and walks (23), while rating third in RBI (36).  SEC All-Tournament honorees Sarah Fekete (team-best 20 stolen bases with a .322 average) and Lindsay Schutzler (hit .329 with 16 steals) return this year to provide speed on the base paths.  Junior Stacey Jennings (Aurora, Colo.) will patrol right field while providing solid pitching depth after throwing 130.1 innings and registering 10 victories during the 2004 campaign.Entering 2005 off a runner-up finish at last year’s Women’s College World Series, the California Golden Bears have been bestowed the top spot in the ESPN.com/USA Softball preseason listing.  The strong pitching duo of Kelly Anderson and Kristina Thorson as well as six other position starters return from the Cal squad that lost 3-1 to UCLA in last year’s national championship contest.Perennial national powers and conference rivals Arizona and UCLA hold down positions two and three, respectively, while Big XII stalwart Oklahoma ranks fourth and Stanford, one of a poll-best seven Pac-10 schools in the rankings, begins the year in the fifth slot.Despite finishing last season with a 24-25 mark, Texas enters 2005 at sixth in the preseason poll due largely to the return of pitcher Cat Osterman from her gold medal-winning travels with the U.S. Olympic Softball Team.  Louisiana-Lafayette, defending SEC Champion LSU, Washington and Georgia round out the Top 10.Florida State, with an incredible 62 victories last season and a nation’s best 0.62 team-ERA, rates 11th, while Michigan, one of last season’s Women’s College World Series participants, sits at No. 12.  Tennessee, Oregon and Alabama hold down positions 13-15, while Oregon State, Fresno State, Baylor, Long Beach State and Nebraska rank 16-20, respectively.  No. 23 Texas A&M and No. 24 Southern Miss are the only two teams to enter the preseason poll that were not among the ranked at the completion of the 2004 campaign.The Lady Vols are currently scheduled to play 10 of the ESPN.com/USA Softball Preseason Top-25 teams:  California, LSU, Washington, Georgia, Michigan, Alabama, Oregon State, Baylor, Long Beach State and Nebraska.  The Orange and White will christen their 2005 campaign against the UCF Golden Knights at the Clearwater Invitational in Clearwater, Fla., on Feb. 4 at noon.

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