Four NCAA Div. III championships
2015 record: 34-12, 9-3 Iowa Conference (tie, second place)
Iowa Conference tournament finish: 1st place
Iowa Conference championships: 12 (most recent in 2013)
NCAA Division III playoff appearances/most recent: 27 in 30 years/2015
NCAA Division III national finals appearances: 13 (most recent, tie 7th, 2013)
NCAA Division III National Championships: 4 (1988, 1991, 1993, 2003)
Letterwinners lost/returning: 10/10
2015 NFCA Division III all-American selections: 2 (DP-Karlee Rock-first team; 2B-Abbey Strajack-first team)
2015 NFCA Division III all-Midwest Region selections: 4 (DP-Karlee Rock-first team; 2B-Abbey Strajack-first team; 3B-Whitney Sowers-second team; P-Mallory Schulenberg-third team)
2015 all-Iowa Conference selections: 5 (DP-Karlee Rock-first team; 2B-Abbey Strajack-first team; 3B-Whitney Sowers-second team; P-Mallory Schulenberg-third team; SS-Paige Schreiner-second team)
Position starters lost: 6 (Katie Canney - C, Paige Heesch - CF, Kaitlyn Matzen - 1B, Karlee Rock - DP, Whitney Sowers - 3B, Abbey Strajack - 2B)
Position starters returning: 3 (Sarah Bowen - RF, Paige Schreiner - SS, Tabitha Taylor - LF)
Starting pitchers lost: 1 (Mallory Schuleberg)
Starting pitchers returning: 1 (Trisha Smith)
It’s not likely that the Central College softball team has ever entered a season with this many unknowns. But you won’t convince coach George Wares that translates to unsuccessful.
Wares knows what a contender looks like. The hall of fame coach is the winningest in NCAA Division III history with a 1,041-347-3 record (.749). Last year’s club was the 27th he’s taken to the NCAA tournament in his 31 seasons, and the 14th to capture an NCAA regional title.
A record 10 seniors—including three players who attained all-America status--graduated from that 34-12 squad, leaving a lineup card full of question marks. But that only fuels Wares’ enthusiasm about 2016.
“Right now, it’s kind of fun,” he said. “We have so much uncertainty but we also have so many pieces of the puzzle already here. We just have to put them together. It’s nice to have that kind of a challenge.”
Wares recoils at phrases that imply a preseason white flag is being raised. “Rebuilding year” is at the top of the list.
“Too many times with a young team, coaches lower the bar,” he said. “We’re not going to do that."
“This is a team that, if we can handle some early frustrations, could grow into a really good team by the end of the season. But our biggest coaching challenge is going to be to not lower the bar in terms of expectations and still demand what we expect them to do, but also be able to understand there are going to be moments when we have to be able to pick them up when they get a little down because they weren’t able to reach those expectations."
“That being said, the biggest disrespect I can give this team is to say, ‘Well, we’re young, let’s lower the standard this year.’”
Central graduated most of the bats that slugged their way to a .333 team average last season and belted a school-record 35 homers with a record 321 runs scored. For the Dutch to contend, they’ll have to rely on Wares’ old-school formula of pitching and defense, in an era increasingly focused on offense.
“We’re going to have to defend,” he said. “I’m not going to say whether we’re going to be better or worse offensively. We’re going to be different in how we try to score runs, but we’re hoping the end result will still be where we can put up 4-5 runs a game and not make our pitchers or defense feel like we have to shut people out because that’s not going to happen in today’s game.”
There may be a drop in power but look for Wares to stomp on the accelerator even more in Central’s traditionally reckless offense. Central held a lopsided 103-22 advantage in stolen bases last year, the 18th time the Dutch have topped the century mark in thefts.
“I think we’ll be different offensively because I think we’ll be even more aggressive,” Wares said. “Our short game will be a little more prominent again and I think we’ve got some people that will learn how to handle the bat well. And we’ve got people, either in the lineup or some pinch-runners we can use, who can put a lot of pressure on the defense.”
Even with the graduation of all-American Mallory Schulenberg, Central’s tradition of stinginess in the pitching circle should continue.
Reliable senior Trisha Smith posted a 12-1 record with a 2.77 earned run average, striking out 55 batters and walking 35 in 93.1 innings.
“We’re hopeful Trish will have a big year as a senior,” Wares said. “We’re trying to get her to understand that what she is, is what she is. When you’re a senior, you have to know what your strengths and weaknesses are. We’re trying to get her more comfortable and relaxed, not have her try to do something she’s not capable of doing.”
Sophomore Annie DeVries made significant contributions last year despite some injury issues, posting a 5-2 mark and 3.86 ERA with one save in 18 appearances, including two starts. She appears to be healthy this spring.
“Credit to what she has done and to our athletic training staff,” Wares said. “We’re expecting some good things from her in the circle and also at some different positions.”
The staff got a big lift with the arrival of junior transfer Karly Olson of Winterset. A highly decorated high school hurler, Olson threw the past two years for Division II power Winona State (Minn.).
“We’ve very excited about Karly,” Wares said. “Clearly her high school record speaks for itself. We think she is an elite pitcher and with a fresh start at Central, will get the chance to show that. Our early-season objective is to get her to believe that."
Wares could also call on freshman Audria Wagenknecht of Aurora, Ill.
“She brings some versatility,” he said. “She’s going to be in the mix for an outfield position as a true lefty slap-hitter.”
Concerns about catching depth were lessened once practices began. Sophomore Emily Walton got some experience as a rookie, appearing in 29 games and starting 11, hitting .237 and posting a .972 fielding percentage.
“Emily, in my opinion, defensively, is one of the better catchers in the region, if not the country,” Wares said. “She’s looked good.”
Walton has battled some injuries, but Wares is now confident he can get support from freshman Kylie Olson of Mapleton, Minn., the first player Wares has coached whose mother he also coached. Laura (Bach) Olson, a 1993 Central grad, was a four-year starter and two-time national championship catcher who is now a highly successful Minnesota high school coach.
“Coming in we knew Kylie had catching in her blood and we thought she’d help us at some point but she’s been a pleasant surprise,” Wares said. “She’s a little more ready than we thought. So we feel very good that we’ve got a solid No. 2 catcher because there are going to be some times when we want to rest Emily.”
There’s still a need for a third catcher, and it appears junior Taylor Sohn, an outfielder, will provide some help, at least in the bullpen.
Like most positions this year, first base has both questions and options. Getting the early look is junior Abbie Voas, who also has experience in the outfield and at third base, but played first base in high school. She hit .259 with three homers and 17 RBIs in 38 games, including 26 starts.
“A few weeks in, she has improved,” Wares said. “The biggest thing is her positive attitude in terms of her own ability to play and not getting as down when a mistake or two does happen. Hopefully that will carry into the actual games.”
DeVries is also likely to spend time there when she’s not pitching. Also a first baseman in high school, she was exclusively a pitcher a year ago but her role will expand. When she’s at first, Voas could slide over to third base.
“We like what we’ve seen from both of them,” Wares said.
Junior Tanner Rathjens is also a possibility.
A year ago, sophomore Tabitha Taylor seemed like the heir apparent at second base. But she was called on to fill a hole in left field last spring and performed so well the Dutch coaching staff suddenly has a position decision to make. She’ll likely be in the lineup somewhere after hitting .284 with a home run and 17 RBIs in 41 games, including 30 as a starter.
“Tabitha has been looking better and better in the outfield,” Wares said. “She’s going to play. Part of it depends on what we do with other people.”
Sophomore Paige Dickel is also a strong candidate. She appeared in 39 games last year, primarily as a pinch-runner.
“Defensively, she’s very, very good,” Wares said.
Freshman Sadie Baugher of Eddyville missed many of the fall workouts while competing for the Dutch volleyball team, but has caught the coaches’ attention in the preseason.
“She’s been a pleasant surprise,” Wares said. “She’s probably a little more ready than we thought she might be. She’s very athletic and one of the fastest players we have on the team.”
Sophomore Brooke Brommel will likely spend most of her time in the outfield and has experience as a corner infielder but could transition to second base, if needed. She hit .348 in 23 at-bats last year, with five doubles and six RBIs. She also stole six bases in as many tries.
“She could give us some consistent offense,” Wares said.
The most stable position in the infield is shortstop, due to the return of senior Paige Schreiner. She won the job last year after transferring to Central and hit .294 with 11 doubles, four homers and 27 RBIs.
“We feel very good about Paige,” Wares said. “Defensively, she’s one of the better shortstops around and her bat improved as the season went along.”
The back-up isn’t as clear. Freshman Lauren Bagby of Norwalk is the most likely candidate. But if necessary, Wares might turn to Taylor, who has high school experience at shortstop.
When Voas isn’t at first base, she could play third. But Baugher is also a possibility as is Dickel.
“Sadie and Paige have looked very good there,” Wares said.
Bagby could slide to third as well.
Sophomore Sarah Bowen of New Sharon started in right field most of last season. Wares said she’s Central’s top defensive outfielder and consequently will get some consideration as a center fielder but will likely stay in right. She hit .286 with 13 RBIs and eight steals. Wares said she’s capable of much more.
“She could be one of the best,” he said. “She’s our most athletic player. She can swing the bat, she can hit for power, she can lay a bunt down, she can get to a lot of balls and she’s got way above average speed. Like many athletes, her worst enemy is herself and she’s got to battle through that. But Sarah’s gifted and we’re expecting a lot of good things from her.”
With Bowen in right, center field appears to be a battle between sophomore Jess Wyant and Wagenknecht.
“It will probably come down to one of those two,” Wares said. “If it doesn’t work, we’ll go to Plan B, if necessary. But we feel pretty confident one of those two will make it."
“Audria (Wagenknecht) is very athletic and she’s played the outfield a lot. She gets a really good jump on the ball and has a much better arm. Jess (Wyant) has a little more experience and she also gets a good read on the ball. Offensively, early, Jess is ahead of Audra but I think Audra has a very good upside.”
Wares said the comfortable decision in left field would be to leave Taylor there instead of returning her to the infield. Or, if Wyant wins the center field job, Wagenknecht could go in left. Junior Felicia Schulty, who was out of the program for a year, also has a shot. And if Taylor does go to second base, Brommel could become a full-time outfielder.
The DP candidates will largely depend on who doesn’t start elsewhere. That includes who starts as the pitcher, as Karly Olson is a strong DP candidate.
“Karly swings the bat very well,” Wares said.
Other possibilities include DeVries, Brommel and Kylie Olson. They could serve as pinch-hitters as well.
“Brooke was pretty consistent at the plate last year,” Wares said. “We have a lot of options because we have a lot of uncertainty. That can be good or bad but I look at it as a positive. Even though we have a lot of uncertainty, we really do have a lot of people we could go with and be very successful.”
Given the high number of position battles, which nine of the 10 players will hit and in what order is up in the air as well.
“We really don’t know right now,” Wares said. “The only person we know who won’t hit when she plays is Trish (Smith). But when one of the others pitch, they could hit for someone else. So if we have somebody who can give us some defense but they’re not quite there on offense, now we have some options.”
Few teams use pinch-runners as extensively as the Dutch and they appear to be well-stocked again.
Wares calls sophomore Caitlyn Saxton one of the team’s fastest baserunners in recent years. She scored 15 runs and stole six bases in 26 appearances as a freshman. Sohn, Wyant and Brommel also have experience. Bagby and freshman Kendra Sexton of Danbury are likely to appear as well.
“Kendra can really run and she’s picked up the situational aspect and the intelligence of running very well,” Wares said. “
Wares typically likes to have lineup decisions settled quickly. It may be a longer process this year.
“I think we’ll go in thinking we’ll go two or three games and have it set, and we might,” he said. “Clearly with the number of kids we lost, it wouldn’t be very smart for me to say we’re definitely going to lock in after two or three games. It’s probably going to take us a little longer than that.”
The defense, while untested at some spots, is more than adequate, Wares said.
“A lot of our early struggles, if I had to guess, are going to be the players not believing in themselves as much as we as coaches believe in them. Physically, we’ve got some skilled people, but I have no idea how they’re going to handle some of the mental part of it when we have the inevitable breakdowns you’re going to have early in the season. How we battle our way through that against a tough schedule, which we have early, will determine a lot, obviously, in how things go.”
Central gets an early evaluation with a pre-dawn doubleheader in the Rochester (Minn.) Dome against defending Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference champ Bethel Feb. 27.
“That’s a real tough opener,” said Wares, noting Bethel returns its top two pitchers. “Winning the league last year was a huge step for them. Those games will tell us a lot.”
The Dutch, who in recent years have become a fixture at the Tucson (Ariz.) Invitational Games over spring break, will have to travel southeast instead to take part in the NFCA Leadoff Classic March 11-13 in Columbus, Ga. The three-day event features many of the top teams in Division III. Central will first play 10 games in Kissimmee, Fla. at the Rebel Spring Games March 5-9.
“I’m very happy with our schedule in Florida,” Wares said. “It’s a very good mix. When you play in Arizona--which is still our preference but it didn’t work out this year—you get a lot of schools from California and Texas that have been outside a lot. But when you look at our schedule in Florida, all those teams will be in the same position we are, they will not have played a lot of games, so I think that’s a bit of a neutralizing factor that we haven’t had in the past."
“Then in the Leadoff, we face Texas Lutheran, which will be one of those teams that has played a lot of games, as has Piedmont (Ga.), and we also face Western Connecticut, so it’s a very tough pool."
“And the rest of the field is loaded. No matter what bracket we get into (after pool play), it will be difficult.”
The first-ever meeting with Western Connecticut State is one associate head coach Alicia O’Brien would have preferred to avoid. Not only is she a Western Connecticut grad, but she led the program to 423 wins in 18 seasons as head coach and is in the school’s hall of fame.
Central also has a tough non-conference slate after returning to the Midwest, tackling playoff hopefuls Fontbonne (Mo.), Washington-St. Louis (Mo.) and Gustavus Adolphus (Minn.).
The Iowa Conference has lost none of its luster. Luther, Coe and Simpson are again expected to be NCAA playoff contenders and return talented pitchers. And the Dutch are equally wary of the other league teams.
“We say it all the time,” Wares said. “The reason the Iowa Conference is the best Division III softball conference in the country is not because of our upper half but our bottom half. I would take our fifth- and sixth-place teams and put them against any other fifth- and sixth-place teams in the country. That’s what makes our league so good.”
Looking for a breather on the Central schedule is largely a futile search. But it’s the kind of challenging slate the Dutch seemingly face every year, and one Wares relishes for its value in preparing his team for a potential postseason run.
He stated the obvious.
“Strength of schedule will not be a concern,” he said.
While the lineup is new, the goals are not.
“If we find out our youth causes more of a struggle in terms of getting going, we may make a change temporarily in terms of what we say,” Wares said. “But right now, the expectation is the same as it always is. We want to try to win the Iowa Conference, do well in the Iowa Conference tournament and get into the postseason. And once you get in (to the NCAA tournament), anything can happen. Our final goal is to put ourselves a position to win a national championship. That’s not going to change.”
Wares sees the potential to contend in this year’s team. But a big part of the challenge is simply convincing the players of that—and understanding that the unavoidable bumps in the road won’t immediately cause the club to lower its sights.
“A lot of our early struggles in practice are just because of the players not believing in themselves as much as we believe in them,” Wares said. “We tell them all the time, if you make a mistake and we put you out there the next inning, it’s because we think you’re the best option.
“This team can be every bit as good as last year’s.”