Softball Moves Forward Into 2018 campaign
"Forward" is the mantra for the 2018 Lafayette softball team which returns seven starters including a Preseason All-Patriot League selection.
"Everything we do, we need to learn from it and use it in the future. We're continuing on a forward path and not worrying about what happened previously," said first-year head coach Caitlyn de la Haba. "Our players have embraced it and bought into the message from the beginning. Our goal is still in the future and everything we're doing is working toward that goal. Everything we go through we can use to get better.
de La Haba will be calling the shots from the bench this season, taking over a program that won 13 games in 2017. She played her college career at Villanova, graduating in 2012 as the program's all-time leader in complete games while registering 55 career victories. Coaching stints at Lehigh and George Mason followed prior to her arrival on College Hill. She will be joined by first-year coach Corinne Ozanne a Syracuse grad who was an All-Big East and All-ACC selection and second-year coach Carly Riepenhoff.
The coaching staff inherits a solid defense that is strong up the middle. Preseason All-Patriot League selection Brooke Wensel comes into her third season as the starter at shortstop and senior Samantha Sweigart starts her fourth and final campaign at second base in 2018 when she will serve as a co-captain.
"From a reliability standpoint, Brooke and Sam are both really solid defenders and strong leaders when they are on the field," de la Haba said. "They are upperclassmen and have the experience to back up their leadership. Their confidence and their presence in the middle infield is really important and it will help out our younger pitchers -- knowing when to slow down the game and make sure everyone is on the same page."
Anchored by the 2017 Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year, Wensel, the Leopards' defense was the best it ever had been in the program's history in 2017, fielding at a .970 clip, a mark that improved steadily (.955 in 2015 and .967 in 2016). Wensel turned eight double plays last season, including a league-best four in conference play. In 98 Patriot League chances, she committed just two errors at short, assisting on 56 plays and putting out 40 to rank as the top-fielding player at short in the Patriot League.
Sweigart committed only two errors the entire season and has turned 21 double plays in her career. Her .298 batting average led the team in hitting in 2017 and she will likely be the squad's lead-off batter again in 2018. The Leopards hit .215 as a squad, thus offensive improvement will be a focus under de la Haba who has pushed her players to hone their hitting strategy.
"We've spent a lot of time developing our hitting approach -- our plan with two strikes, with runners in scoring position and how we make adjustments in those situations," de la Haba said. "We want our players to be prepared for every offensive scenario that they are going to step into."
"Statistically, we want to improve our on-base percentage and cut down on our strikeouts. I think those things will happen with the way we've changed our approach to getting quality at-bats," de la Haba explained. "Our players know that there are a lot of ways to be productive without getting a hit. We've spent a lot of time on situational hitting in practice, developing a plan for hitting and sticking to that plan, really focusing on the mental side of hitting."
A positional preview follows.
With a roster of just 13 healthy players, de la Haba doesn't have much depth and there are three infielders who can't afford to miss any time: Wensel, Sweigart and Miranda Skurla. Fortunately, Wensel has never missed a start at shortstop, playing in 86 games her first two seasons, while Sweigart has started 122 contests.
In addition to being a 2018 Preseason All-Patriot League honoree, Wensel was an All-Patriot League Second-Team selection as a rookie in 2016, when she led the team with a .324 average. Wensel got off to a slow start in the 2017 season offensively, but had four multiple-hit games and managed a 10-game hitting streak over the last 11 games of 2018 to finish with a .236 average. She will again find herself near the middle of the batting order after leading the team with three home runs in 2017.
Playing primarily at third base, Skurla has had longevity similar to that of Wensel and Sweigart, starting 109 of 118 games in her career. She made just four errors in 206 chances at the hot corner in 2017.
"Miranda is reliable as a person and a player. She has really taken on the leadership role associated with being a captain," de la Haba said. "She is solid on the corner, really coachable and wants to do everything that she can to get better."
First base looks to be a busy place, as de la Haba will look to work several of the four catchers into that role. Junior Maddie Wensel, who was second on the team in hitting with a .290 average, will no doubt see time at first base along with freshman Kaitlyn Rarick and potentially senior Rebecca Dvorak.
A former college pitcher, de la Haba recognizes the importance of the signal caller in the pitcher-catcher battery and she will have choices with four catchers on the roster.
"Who we have behind the plate will depend somewhat on who is throwing because the pitchers' comfort levels vary with each catcher," she explained. "All of the catchers have been hitting well, so we're trying to work them into other spots when they are not catching so we can get their bats into the lineup. In order to do that, they are going to have to be a lot more versatile this season."
Rarick and junior pitcher Stacy Gordon, both from the capital region of New York state, played together prior to coming to Lafayette and would be a natural match. Maddie Wensel is also experienced catching for Gordon and played in 25 games at catcher last season. Wensel threw out nine basestealers in 2017 and 10 as a rookie. She's likely a middle-of-the-order hitter.
Rebecca Dvorak, who has played in 81 career games, will also don the catcher's gear. She led the Leopards in hitting as a freshman with a .293 average, but played in just 14 games last season due to injury. Dvorak is versatile and could also be used in the outfield in addition to first base.
The Leopard pitching staff will have a lot to prove this season as it is largely inexperienced with the depratures of Kristyn Marinelli and Stephanie Thomas. Gordon and Randall will see the bulk of the innings while freshman Hannah Cook will also figure in the mix.
"Both Stacy and Alexis are taking on new roles. They are going to have to throw a lot of innings, but they are accepting of that," de la Haba said. "I need to see consistency out of both of them. They need to go out and give us a chance to win every game. With our defense being as solid as it has been, if our pitchers keep the ball in the park, we should be in a pretty good position to win games.
Gordon was 3-9 in 18 appearances with 11 starts in 2017. The southpaw had a 5.81 ERA over 56.2 innings. Randall was 1-3 in 10 appearances with six starts and could also see time at DP and first base. Cook was an all-conference pitcher in high school who helped lead her team to a conference title in 2017.
Senior Morgan Biddle enters her fourth season as a starter in the Lafayette outfield. She has been a consistent defensive presence, making just five errors in three seasons. Possessing a strong arm, freshman Paige Grover is the likely starter in right field but could play in center if needed. Grover can hit for power and average and will be near the top of the order. She could be part of a rotation in right as de la Haba looks to work different bats, including Rarick, into the lineup.
Junior Ellen McDonnell is the likely starter in leftfield. She played in 31 games with 13 starts over her first two seasons on College Hill. Sophomore Mallory Kane started 19 games in left field as a rookie, but likely will miss the entire 2018 season due to injury.
Lafayette is set to start the season with some tough competition, competing at the Battle at the Beach hosted by Coastal Carolina on Feb. 15-18. The Leopards open with an evening doubleheader with the hosts and then play Robert Morris, Rider and Kent State over the final three days.
"Entering into this tournament gets us on the field earlier and guarantees us some good weather early in the season," de la Haba said. "The whole point of the preseason in general is to prepare us for Patriot League play. This tournament gives us five more games to help do that."
The Leopards will play in tournaments hosted by Hampton, Georgetown and Coppin State through the first week in March before opening at home on March 10 vs. Drexel. A final tournament over spring break takes Lafayette to the Buff and Blue Challenge hosted by George Washington Univ. March 16-18.
Patriot League play opens on March 24-25 when the Leopards host Holy Cross. A week later, Lafayette travels to face archrival Lehigh in a three-game series. Senior Day is slated for April 14 when the Maroon and White close out a Patriot League series with Colgate. Conference play comes to a conclusion May 5-6 at Army. The Patriot League Tournament is scheduled for May 10-12.
"Our overarching goal is to get back to Patriot League Tournament for first time since 2012. This first tournament this weekend will be a big step in the right direction from a competitiveness standpoint to see where we need to be," de la Haba said. "We can learn from these first five games and go back into practice and get ready for the next weekend. It's a weekly process to see how we can get better."