PROVO — After a disappointing end to the 2002 softball season, frustrated BYU star Oli Keohohou was ready to pack up her powerful bat and transfer.

Last summer, the two-time All-America received her official release from the school, allowing her to pursue other opportunities. She considered taking her skills to places like UCLA, Texas or Cal-State Fullerton. But in the end, she came back to the Cougars.

"Two-time All-Americans are hard to lose," said BYU coach Gordon Eakin. "She's a phenomenal player. We're thrilled she decided to stay."

Keohohou, a junior, led the Mountain West Conference in hitting (.422), home runs (18) and RBI (43) last season.

The Cougars open the 2003 campaign Friday against No. 23 Oregon State at the Thunderbird Classic, hosted by Southern Utah University.

One of the reasons Keohohou returned to Provo was Eakin. An assistant coach in the program since 2000, Eakin took over the helm of BYU softball after Mary Kay Amicone resigned during the offseason.

Eakin prefers not to dwell on the past and he speaks highly of his predecessor. "I respect coach Amicone," he said. "It boiled down to philosophical differences between her and the university."

At the time of Amicone's resignation, women's athletic director Elaine Michaelis praised Amicone for her work in establishing the softball program, and added, "there are issues regarding her leadership style that we have not been able to resolve for some time." Amicone's coaching style reportedly rubbed some of her players, including Keohohou, the wrong way. Eakin admits that his approach is not the same as Amicone's. "I have a different philosophy," he said.

What Eakin is doing with this year's team sheds light on the problems that may have existed under Amicone. During the fall, Eakin and his staff met with the team and together they drafted a mission statement for the 2003 season.

"The first part of the mission statement says, 'We play the game because we love it,'" Eakin said. "We want to have a no-fear attitude. We don't need to magnify mistakes when they happen. We need to learn from them."

He added: "If the players are happy, they'll be better players." In general, the Cougars weren't the happiest bunch last season, particularly Keohohou. Her attitude is much better now, Eakin said.

"This fall, she's had the best work ethic since she's been at BYU," he explained. "She singlehandedly lifts the team around her."

In 2003, Keohohou moves from the outfield to first base. She is surrounded by a mix of experienced players and newcomers. The Cougars lost six starters from last year's team, which went 30-23.

MWC Tournament MVP Brooke Cadiente, shortstop Kate Walker, catcher Lauren Watson and pitcher Cynthia Fallowfield all return. New players include sophomore second baseman Milli Jones, freshman third baseman Ashlyn Russell and freshman outfielder Ianeta Lei. Mandy Flint, a transfer from Southern Utah, and freshman Brooke Boyce should provide depth to the pitching staff.

"I'm cautiously optimistic about the season," Eakin said. "We're young but talented. We'll start three freshmen and four sophomores. We have a more well-rounded team than we've had before. We have a complete team — offense, defense and pitching. I'm optimistic that we'll be able to compete for the (league) title. We have great team chemistry, the best we've had since I've been here."