CHICAGO – In her 19 seasons at the helm, University of Chicago head softball coach Ruth Kmak has relied on her team's ability to embrace the 'intangibles.'
Those intangibles – clutch performances, leadership, accountability, and the urgency of competitive sport – are what have helped bring the program 10 of its 11 NCAA Division III Tournament appearances, including two straight in 2016 and 2017.
A strong core of returners and a new class of first years have Kmak & Co. hoping the 2018 edition of the Maroons can use those qualities to accomplish something that's never been done before: three-straight trips among the national field of 62.
"Our expectations are always high," Kmak, who is approaching the 400-win mark this season, said. "While we lost a couple of major contributors to graduation, we return our pitching staff and defensive core and our offensive lineup will also remain largely intact… We'll look for some of the returners to take on more significant roles and for our first-years to step up to compete immediately.
"If each team member does her part, we will be a very competitive whole."
A year ago, the Maroons won 26 games – tying the third-most in the 50-year program's history – and qualified for its 11th NCAA Tournament and fifth since 2010. UChicago did it behind winning nine of its final 10 regular-season games to qualify as the Pool B at-large selection.
The Maroons defeated No. 25 St. Catherine in the opener, 1-0, behind a stellar pitching performance from then-junior Molly Moran (eight strikeouts, two hits), before falling to Luther and St. Catherine to conclude their season.
Moran, now entering her senior season, finished with a 1.90 earned run average, 11-7 record and totaled 97 strikeouts in 118 innings en route to second-team all-University Athletic Association honors and she earned a spot on the NCAA All-Regional team.
Three players earned National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) All-Region honors: first-teamer and left-fielder Maeve Garvey (.405 batting average, 26 RBI, 15 doubles and two home runs); second-team utility Anna Woolery (.430 batting average, 58 hits, 23 RBI); and third-team third-basemen Maggie O'Hara (.302 batting average, 23 RBI, one home run).
WHO'S BACK, WHO'S NEW
While Woolery and O'Hara are gone to graduation, UChicago brings 11 returners back to the field along with five new faces.
Moran and senior utility player Sara Koniewicz (.302 batting average) return as the lone fourth-years, while a strong junior class of five – led by Garvey, who set the single-season record for doubles last year with 15 – round out the upperclassmen. Junior Jordyn Prussak (3.75 ERA, 3-2 record) will again help form the Maroons' pitching corps, and Serena Moss started all 40 games in the outfield, finishing the year with a perfect 15-for-15 mark on the base paths. Carly Schulz (.325, 20 RBI) started 39 games at first base and Colleen Bennett (.280, 16 RBI) did the same, primarily at second base.
Second-year players Emma Nelson (.241 batting average, NCAA All-Regional team) and Christie Ambrose (.333 batting average, nine RBI) also held starting roles at shortstop and right field, respectively, and Megan Stoppelman (2.06 ERA, 12-5 record, batted. 421) rounds out the experienced returning pitching staff as one of the Maroons' top options in the circle.
"We should be strong up the middle," Kmak said. "Defensively overall, we focus on the fundamentals and mechanics, while also continuing to grow in our communication and strategic situations."
The five first-years – Abby Hayes (infield/outfield), Skye Collins (infield/outfield), Linette Pan (outfield), Jessica Perez (outfield) and Gabi Angellotti (catcher/infield) – will also be a part of the mix as the season unfolds.
"Our first years are competing for starting positions immediately and challenging all over the field," Kmak added. "(They) are a talented group that compete each day at practice, making us better by challenging at multiple positions to start and provide depth."
UChicago has 40 games on its schedule, with the first 12 set during the team's spring break trip to Clermont, Fla. The Maroons open 2018 against Calvin (Mich.) and Tufts (Mass.) March 17, then play 10 more games over the course of the following seven days.
A double-header at Lake Forest (Ill.) March 26 and four games at Washington-St. Louis March 30-31 wraps up March play, before the Maroons host an eight-game home stand with twin bills against North Park (April 2), Aurora (April 5), Hope (April 9) and Wisconsin-Whitewater (April 14).
Other home games on the schedule include North Central (April 24), Case Western Reserve (April 28-29) and Elmhurst, with the Maroons' regular-season finale set for May 1 against the Bluejays.
While the Maroons have proven to show success on the field, Kmak notes that it's what goes on off the field that drives her team to compete at a high level.
"Our team treats each other like family, loves the game of softball and has some fun while competing. There are always challenges, but this is a group of whose leadership is evolving as the younger players work to find a voice and presence on the field.
"… Our team focus points are to compete at our best in each area of the game: offense, defense and pitching and catching; have an aggressive mindset in each of these areas; do the little things well; and be the best versions of ourselves that we can be on and off the field. If we work hard at these focus points, we will end up where we want to be from a softball standpoint at the end of the season."