CHICAGO – The sure sign that softball season is set to commence is the arrival of spring break. The University of Chicago typically makes its debut with a slate of neutral-site games down in Florida against other teams who are also taking advantage of the academic respite.
However, the Maroons will make one of their earliest starts ever when they open up action on March 8. A quick jaunt northwest to Rosemont, Ill. will feature a pair of contests inside The Dome – a specialized 140,000-square foot indoor sports facility. For Head Coach Ruth Kmak and her squad, the enthusiasm for the upcoming season comes from one of the team's defining characteristics.
"This team is full of positive energy," Kmak said. "They work extremely hard at practice and are a group that truly wants the best for each other and the team as a whole. We work to control what we can control and have been emphasizing the mental side of the game. We are extremely excited to be playing in a dome for the first time in program history, as well as kicking off the season prior to spring break - also a first."
UChicago is coming off a 2019 campaign that featured a 13-19 overall record. With four seniors graduated from that squad, the 19-player roster has experienced a recent infusion of youth. The team is composed of two seniors, four juniors, eight sophomores and five first-years.
Kmak enters her 21st year leading the Maroons, during which she has compiled 422 career victories and 10 appearances in the NCAA postseason. The veteran coach wants her team to possess an identity of aggression on both sides of the ball.
"Our defense will be solid and our offense will utilize a quality balance of speed and small ball with power production from some of our big hitters," Kmak said. "We look forward to creating more run-scoring possibilities with an aggressive mindset on offense. We have programmatically gotten away from the short game and we look to bring it back a bit to create more scoring opportunities on offense."
Despite its relative youth, UChicago's roster features 12 returners who appeared in at least 18 games last season. Sophomore catcher Katie O'Donnell experienced a breakout debut with team-leading marks of a .397 batting average and .472 on-base percentage. Sophomore outfielder Samantha Lauro provided a leadoff presence with a .364 batting average, 20 runs scored and eight stolen bases. Senior shortstop Emma Nelson (.306 BA) and junior Abby Hayes (.295 BA) make up the middle of the infield defense. Sophomore outfielder Lainey Hughes finished second on the team with seven extra-base hits while sophomore outfielder Maddy Mudrick successfully stole a team-high 10 bases on 11 attempts.
The pitching staff brings back two experienced hurlers. Sophomore Bethany Regnerus went 8-6 as a rookie with a 3.45 ERA and six complete games over the course of 87.1 innings worked. Sophomore Olivia Dunne made seven starts and nine relief appearances, totaling two saves over her 39 innings pitched.
Defensively, the Maroons ranked second nationally in double plays per game (0.63), turning 20 overall.
"We'll be relying on our third and fourth years for leadership and energy, while also counting on our second years to produce steadily and contribute significantly and consistently with their bats and defense," Kmak said. "We are looking for Emma Nelson to have a complete season at shortstop. Her leadership on defense is inspirational to the team. Fourth-year Christie Ambrose brings positivity and energy to our outfield group and the team overall. Third-year Abby Hayes will move into the starting role at second base after serving as our primary right fielder the past couple years. We are looking forward to her contributions.
"We look forward to the offensive production of second-year Katie O'Donnell, our leading returning hitter," she continued. "We also anticipate quality power and production from third-year Gabi Angellotti and second-years Lainey Hughes and Savannah Pinedo. We return the bulk of our pitching staff from last year and with a year of experience, we are looking forward to what they can do. We honestly expect the entire roster to contribute each game in some way."
After the two local games, UChicago heads down to Florida for a 12-game slate from March 21-28. The Maroons make their home debut on March 31 with a doubleheader against Lake Forest College.
As the season progresses, Kmak wants her team to show continual growth through every situation that arises, whether it be on the practice field or in official competition.
"We look to continue to improve the fundamentals each day, while also having a growth mindset, learning each day and embodying our positivity on a pitch-by-pitch basis," she said. "We won't take anything for granted and will be grateful for the opportunity to play and compete each day."