CHICAGO – With a team ready to take the field with as much experience, but also as much youthful potential as does the 2019 edition of the University of Chicago softball team, veteran Head Coach Ruth Kmak said there's just one word floating around this preseason:
"From Day 1 this fall, this group has meshed very well with a high energy level and competitive spirit," said Kmak, now in her 20th season and building off her 400th career coaching victory, a mark she passed in 2018.
"We have practiced at a higher level than ever before and there is a unified desire to grow and compete. The returners have worked hard to demonstrate expectations and the newcomers have built enthusiasm. Together, with the balance of talent, our coaching staff is very excited about this group – at this point, we've worked beyond first years and returners to truly embrace a team family concept on and off the field."
2018 IN REVIEW
UChicago brings back 14 returners – 12 with starting experience – in a near-even average of class breakdown: five seniors, four juniors and five sophomores. The Maroons won 20 games in 2018 but lost 17, causing the squad to miss out on at-large bid to the NCAA Division Tournament for the first time in three seasons.
The Maroons graduated their lone National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) All-Region selection in four-year performer Molly Moran, who finished her career ranked in the Top 10 in at least eight categories in the Maroon record book, including second in saves and fifth in shutouts.
One stride the Maroons made in 2018 was with the long ball: UChicago – led by Maeve Garvey with five – totaled 10 home runs compared to just three in 2017.
"We look forward to our offensive game this season," Kmak said. "We have a very balanced attack with power and speed both sprinkled in to a quality group of hitters. Our newcomers bring a lot to the offensive side and should have an immediate impact in the lineup. We cannot help but improve over last year's offensive output in power and hitting for average."
WEALTH OF EXPERIENCE
The 14 returners all bring back various levels of experience from 2018.
Garvey, who started 34 games at either the outfield or designated player positions, led the Maroons in batting average (.368) and slugging percentage (.604), to go along with 39 hits, 21 runs, six doubles, five home runs and 31 RBI.
Carly Schulz started 36 games at first base, hitting for .351 with a .421 slugging percentage, recording 40 hits, 14 runs, 13 RBI and a near-perfect .992 fielding percentage. Colleen Bennett, who had an injury-shortened season, returns with experience in the infield, and pitcher Jordyne Prussak is back after going 6-2 in the circle, striking out 23 batters.
Joining Garvey with outfield experience include senior Serena Moss (.299, 35 hits, 30 runs, three doubles, three triples and 15 RBI), sophomore Abby Hayes (.288, 32 hits, six doubles, 27 RBI, home run), and junior Christie Ambrose (17 starts, 11 runs). In the infield, sophomore Skye Collins earned time primarily at third base (.250 batting average, six doubles, two home runs, 15 RBI) and junior Emma Nelson spent most of her time at shortstop, batting .300 with 36 hits, 23 runs, 14 RBI and two home runs.
Junior Megan Stoppelman (63 innings pitched, 29 Ks) also saw time in the circle in 2018. At catcher, junior Holli Jones (.245 batting average, 24 hits, four doubles, two home runs, 15 RBI, .347 slugging) and sophomore Gabi Angellotti (.235 batting average, 16 hits, three doubles, 12 RBI) return to complete experience in the Maroons' battery.
Kmak's challenge will be melding the experience with the new: eight first-years, to be exact. The class of eight includes two pitchers – Olivia Dunne and Bethany Regnerus – while the remaining six round out both the infield and outfield: Katie O'Donnell (C), Samantha Lauro (OF), Maddy Mudrick (OF/MI), Savannah Pinedo (SS/3B), Lainey Hughes (OF), and Jules Waller (1B).
With eight newcomers and only 10 positions on the field, competition is unavoidable.
"This will likely be the most competitive roster we've ever had," Kmak said, while noting that competition will only fuel UChicago's goal of returning to the NCAA postseason.
"Our third and fourth years, having been there, understand what it takes to reach the next level and they have been bringing it throughout the practice season. The energy and skill of our first years has created a competitive spirit surpassed only by how much they all care about each other. We have belief in ourselves and each other, while also cultivating expectations, maintaining effort throughout and learning to hold each other accountable."