Four NCAA Div. III championships
2014 overall record: 30-12
Iowa Conference record/finish: 10-4 (tie, 2nd place)
Iowa Conference tournament finish: tie, 5th place
Iowa Conference championships: 12 (most recent in 2013)
NCAA playoff appearances: 26 (most recent in 2014)
Top 8 finishes: 13 (most recent, tie 7th, 2013)
National championships: 4 (1988, 1991, 1993, 2003)
Letterwinners lost: 6
Letterwinners returning: 14
Position starters lost: 2 (Annie Sarcone - SS, Jordan Overland - LF)
Position starters returning: 7 (Whitney Sowers - 3B, Katie Canney - C, Abbey Strajack - 2B, Karlee Rock - DP, Paige Heesh - CF, Kaitlyn Matzen - 1B, Sarah Bowen - RF)
Starting pitchers lost: 1 (Brie Haycraft)
Starting pitchers returning: 2 (Trisha Smith, Mallory Schulenberg)
Each of coach George Wares’ 30 seasons in his epic career as Central College’s softball coach has brought something new and season No. 31 is no different.
Ranked No. 12 in Division III in the preseason, the Dutch have 10 seniors, the most in school history. And it’s a talented group that includes a pair of past all-America honorees, pitcher Mallory Schulenberg and second baseman Abbey Strajack, as well as hard-hitting third baseman Whitney Sowers, who would be Wares’ pick to captain last year’s Shoulda-Been All-America squad.
They’re among 14 returning letterwinners, including eight starters, from last year’s 30-12 club which gained the program’s 26th NCAA tournament berth in the past 29 seasons, an unrivaled run of success in Division III. Last spring they helped Wares become the first coach in Division III history to reach the 1,000 career victories plateau. His mark climbed to 1,007-335-3 (.749).
The senior class will obviously have an outsized impact on 2015.
“It’s not just the high number, it’s a lot of quality seniors,” Wares said. “It’s a very committed class and it’s a class that’s very together.
“But the flip side is, we’re not going to make this season about them. It’s no different than when we have just a few seniors. There’s a temptation as you go through the season thinking that this is the last time we’ll do this or the last time that we’ll do that. We’ve talked a lot already about how we’re not going to make it about that.”
Wares said the sense of urgency should be no different for the freshmen than the seniors.
“You always want to play every season like it’s your last season,” he said.
Wares cherishes the seniors’ commitment to Central softball and the fact that so many want to be a part of the squad even though some have seen little playing time speaks volumes about the program. But he won’t let emotions dictate his lineup.
“I’m very grateful they’ve stuck with it for four years,” he said. “But bottom line, decisions will be made like they always are. We’ll do what’s best for the team.”
There’s certainly a potential downside to having so many seniors, but Wares doesn’t see it that way.
“I’d rather have 10 than one,” he said.
And to the Dutch faithful already worried about what the graduation of 10 players will mean to the 2016 squad, Wares notes that reinforcements have arrived and more are on the way.
“We’ve got a big senior class but we’ve also got a big freshman class,” he said.
Pitching has long been foundational to Central’s success but this year’s staff is among the deepest in recent years.
Schulenberg returns, eager to improve on last season’s numbers. She led the Dutch to the national finals in 2013, gaining all-America honors with a 16-4 mark and a 1.51 earned run average. She wasn’t quite as sharp in 2014 and battled some injuries, but was still a solid 11-7 with a 3.07 ERA.
“A lot of things didn’t go as well as she wanted last year,” Wares said. “But she’s really invested this year. She’s a lot more confident. She’s got that experience of having had such a great sophomore year and of getting to the national tournament, and she likes that feeling.”
Meanwhile junior Trisha Smith was a revelation. Strictly a junior varsity pitcher as a freshman, Wares liked her potential but wasn’t sure what to expect from her last season. He quickly got his answer as she posted a 13-3 mark with a 2.08 ERA and led the staff with 110 strikeouts in 121 innings.
“The sky’s the limit for Trisha,” he said. “The improvement she showed last year was remarkable. But we learned that we probably overused her because our depth wasn’t as great as the depth we think we’ll have this year. And she’s stronger this year. There are a lot things we can get from her this season.”
Aside from a rejuvenated Schulenberg, the pitching depth should come from a pair of newcomers, freshman Annie De Vries of Eldridge, a North Scott High School standout, and sophomore transfer Jaelyn Monhollon of Topeka, Kansas.
“Annie’s got good location and off-speed pitches,” Wares said. “She’ll get some valuable innings.
“And we’re very happy to pick up Jaelyn. She still has to develop but she has a big upside.”
The Dutch also brought in freshman Kaci Braner of New Berlin, Illinois, who shows promise as well and will likely gain experience with the junior varsity.
“The first four will clearly give us some valuable innings this year,” Wares said. “And one thing we’ve learned about the Arizona trip (Central’s 16-game spring break trek to the Tucson Invitational Games) is that we need a lot of pitching.”
Wares is far more comfortable with the catching situation than a year ago, when the Dutch moved first baseman Katie Canney to behind the plate to plug a lineup hole. Canney, now a senior, gives the lineup a powerful and consistent bat. She hit .363 last year with five homers and 29 RBIs in gaining second-team all-conference recognition for the second time. But she also made big strides defensively in earning the trust of the Dutch pitchers.
Wares has confidence, too, in senior Dana Van Renterghem, who appeared in 14 games and brings a steady glove. And he’s excited about the potential flashed by freshman Emily Walton of Cedar Rapids as well as classmate Kasey Lapp of Oregon, Illinois.
“We’ve got a lot of options,” he said. “Katie Canney did a fine job last year. We’ll look at her early but we could move her back to first base. She’s going to play somewhere.
“Obviously we need a good year from her offensively but she also gives us a lot with her versatility. She can go behind the plate but we’ll look at her at first base as well.
“Dana (Van Renterghem) is very solid defensively. She’ll get some looks.
“And we’re very excited to see what Emily (Walton) can do. She comes in doing a lot of things well as a catcher and she’s very adequate at the plate. She needs to get healthy but we’re not too concerned that that will be an issue.
“Kasey (Lapp) gives us a fourth catcher. How many catchers we take to Arizona remains to be seen, but she’s very athletic and has played some shortstop as well.”
When Canney moved to catcher last year, senior Kaitlyn Matzen quickly stepped in to claim the position and was a second-team all-conference performer. She hit .333 with six homers and 28 RBIs.
Also competing for time on the field is senior Karlee Rock, a first-team all-league pick as a designated player in 2013 before receiving honorable mention last year. De Vries also has experience at first base and could play there when not pitching and the Dutch could call on sophomore Tanner Rathjens.
“Kaitlyn (Matzen) played well last year,” Wares said. “Karlee (Rock) is improved and will get a look. There’s a chance we could put Katie (Canney) back there and go back and forth a little bit between catcher and first base.
“We’ve got good options. All four can hit well. The question is where we feel best defensively.”
While Rock is the most likely choice for designated player, if she would win the first base job, Matzen could take over as DP.
“Kaitlyn would fill that role well,” Wares said. “Either way, she has to have a good year for us to be what we want to be.”
Strajack is exactly the kind of threat Wares loves to have at the top of the order to ignite his speed-based offense. She’s a dangerous baserunner with great offensive pop and bat control. Strajack hit .354 last year with 35 runs scored and 12 stolen bases after soaring to bat .429 in 2013.
A third-team all-America honoree as a designated player in 2012, she was a first-team all-Midwest Region choice last year as well as a second-team all-conference selection. Her 144 career hits already tie her for 14th on Central’s all-time list. She’s grown defensively as well.
“I’m biased but I think she’s as good of a lead-off hitter as there is in the country,” Wares said. “And she’s improved each year defensively.”
She’s likely to be the first name on each Dutch lineup card but Wares said if she does need a rest, Central has second base depth as well. Freshman Tabitha Taylor who played for a state title team at Dallas Center-Grimes High School, appears ready to fill in while freshmen Brooke Brommel of St. Charles and Paige Dickel of New Virginia each show promise.
"Tabitha had a really good fall,” Wares said. “She comes in looking like she can handle college pitching. One of those three is likely to be our second baseman of the future.”
If Strajack were sidelined for more than a few games, Wares might call on senior utility player Kallie Schive.
Wares doesn’t expect to find a bat at shortstop as powerful as graduated all-America Annie Sarcone, who could use a glove effectively as well, but does have some promising newcomers eager to play the position. Junior Paige Schreiner, an Ottumwa native, transferred from Indian Hills Community College, where she thrived as a third baseman under former Dutch assistant Laura North following a year as an outfielder at Indiana State.
“The initial leader (at shortstop) is Paige,” Wares said. “Defensively, she should be able to fill Annie’s shoes. Offensively, she’s a different type of player. She’s not going to have the power numbers but she’s a good contact hitter. It’s just a question of her adjusting to how we play.
“Right now, I’m confident she can do what we need.”
But Taylor is a more than capable option as well.
“She looked good at shortstop in the fall,” Wares said.
Freshman Lizzie Stock of Newton also caught Wares’ eye.
“She could end up as part of the equation,” he said.
Another possibility is sophomore Abbie Voas. She appeared in 35 games last year and batted only .200 in her rookie season but flashed her potential by hitting two home runs. She also stole six bases. But she’s more likely ticketed for a season in the outfield. Central could also slide Strajack over to shortstop, if necessary.
Sowers is rock-solid at third. The gritty senior is entering her fourth season as a starter and even though she was bypassed for all-America recognition, nonetheless turned in one of the most impressive statistical seasons in school history. She hit .491, the second-highest season average ever by a Dutch player. Sowers had 54 hits, nine doubles, five homers and 23 RBIs. She also drew 16 walks, posted a .568 on-base percentage and stole nine bases in as many tries.
But Sowers flashed one of the team’s best gloves, as well, committing just two errors with a .983 fielding percentage.
“Whitney just keeps getting better and better,” Wares said. “We’ve got to keep her healthy—she goes at it so hard, even indoors.
“Offensively, there’s nothing picture-perfect about her but she’s a very competitive hitter. She can hit pitches out of the zone and she can do other things, like hit and run, and she bunts well.”
Her experience will help stabilize the infield defensively, Wares said.
“She’ll be good for whoever plays shortstop,” he said. “That player will be between two senior leaders, with Whitney at third and Abbey Strajack at second.”
Sowers gave Central a late-season scare with an injury that caused her to miss most of three games, but that gave Voas some valuable experience and she can serve as a back-up at third again. Freshman Brooke Brommel is another option, along with Taylor.
Voas will get a hard look as Central tries to fill an opening in left field. Wares also tried Taylor there in the fall, with encouraging results.
The edge in experience goes to senior Shannon Coulson, who saw some outfield time last year in addition to her pinch-running duties. Senior Kallie Schive brings a veteran presence as well, after being employed as a pinch-hitter last season. They’ll get a shot, said Wares, who has also pondered converting Brommel to the outfield. And freshman Jessica Wyant, a Van Meter native who played for ADM High School, could move over from her more familiar spot in center field.
Speedy senior Paige Heesch is poised for a third year as the starter in center field. She hit .333 and scored 19 runs while stealing a team-high 17 bases. Wares likes the progress she’s made in becoming a top defensive player as well. She also has the respect of her teammates as she and Sowers were chosen as team co-captains.
Back-up duties in center will be contested by Wyant and freshman Caitlin Saxton of Leon, with, again, the versatile Taylor an option, if needed.
Sophomore Sarah Bowen eventually emerged as last year’s starter in right field. She made steady progress, hitting .289 with a homer and 14 RBIs and stole six bases. Schive could also be used in right and Wares thinks sophomore Taylor Sohn has made strides.
There are plenty of good options but a decision on the designated player largely hinges on who ends up playing first base. Senior Karlee Rock is a three-year starter at DP with a history of strong production, gaining first-team all-conference recognition in 2013. She hit .349 last year, belting four home runs and driving in 29 runs.
Rock will be a four-year starter there if Matzen remains the starting first baseman. But Rock is also contending for the first base job, which would leave Matzen as a talented option as DP.
“Karlee is a good example of a player who just does what she’s asked,” Wares said. “She’s worked really hard and if she’s not the starter at first base, I’d be stunned if she wasn’t disappointed, but I also have no doubt she’ll do whatever she’s asked to do to help the team.”
De Vries could force her way into the picture when she’s not throwing for the Dutch, but will more likely give Wares a high card to play as a pinch-hitter. Other potential pinch-hitters—if they’re not in the lineup elsewhere--include Schives, Monhollon, Brommel and Dickel.
Few teams place a premium on swift, smart and aggressive pinch-running the way Central does. In fact, Central became the only school ever to land a pinch-runner on the all-Iowa Conference team when Daniela Grob was awarded a second-team utility slot in 2000. The Dutch racked up their usual lopsided advantage over opponents in stolen bases last year, 99-13, finishing one bag shy of the century mark for the second straight year after topping 100 steals 17 times since 1990.
Central should excel on the bases again in 2015. Wares calls Coulson and Schives the team’s most intelligent pinch-runners. Coulson stole seven bases in eight tries and scored 13 runs last year. But there are some reinforcements as well, most notably Saxton.
“Caitlin could be really good,” Wares said. “She may be the fastest runner on the team. We’re converting her to become a left-handed bat and moving her to the outfield. She may not be ready for that yet, but she’s a legitimate stolen base threat."
Wares also likes Taylor, Wyant, Sohn, Bickel and Brommel on the basepaths.
Wares has never been a fan of indoor softball games but the Dutch will make their room-temperature debut at the Luther Dome Games in the Rochester (Minn.) Regional Stadium Bubble March 6-7 to open the season. They’ll take on traditionally capable Wis.-La Crosse, Wis.-River Falls and Wis.-Eau Claire.
“We couldn’t fill in our non-conference schedule adequately later in the season, so we’re going to give it a shot,” Wares said. “The competition is good. We practice indoors a lot so I would hope we’ll be good at it.”
Central then heads outdoors for a more familiar spot, the Tucson (Ariz.) Invitational Games, playing 16 games March 13-21. With fewer teams in this year’s field, the Dutch will be taking on some talented NAIA squads as well as several Division III foes.
“It’s a very solid schedule there, for sure,” Wares said. “I do think that’s where the indoor games the previous weekend will help. Those will help give us a barometer of where we are and and we’ll be able to have four or five practices after that before we play in Arizona.”
There will be few opportunities for easy wins, but Wares has long believed that facing challenging competition is the best way to prepare for the rigors of the Iowa Conference season and NCAA tournament play.
“Strength of schedule will not be a concern,” he said. “I think this team will be able to handle it. Having the depth we do on our pitching staff this year clearly helps.”
Wares thinks that Simpson has enough new talent to become a conference favorite this spring, with traditional contenders Luther and Coe potential title-winners as well.
"Simpson brought in a very good class,” Wares said. “Luther always seems to come up with good pitching and Coe has a couple of quality pitchers back. And Buena Vista and Dubuque both beat us last year, and the team that finished last a year ago, Wartburg, has a very good recruiting class. There’s not a day off against anyone. Top to bottom, I’d still put our league up against any in the country.”
What is reassuring to Wares is that the Dutch have 10 veteran seniors who will be invaluable in dealing with the intensity league play requires. Many are top students—11 Central players were named to the NFCA Scholar-Athlete team, the ninth-most in the country. The intangibles and perspective those players bring is beneficial on the field, Wares said. And a hallmark of Central’s program is the emphasis Wares puts on things bigger than the game.
Conversely, those intangibles often lead to championships, he said.
Rock, for instance, has been accepted into one of the nation’s top forensic science graduate programs at Marshall University (W. Va.), while Coulson has already secured a job in plant genetics. And Canney, who has landed an elementary school teaching position, took advantage of a range of off-campus opportunities including numerous mission trips to Mexico and South Africa.
“The leadership Katie is giving us because of her other experiences from traveling and student teaching is so important," Wares said. “She can bring a level of maturity you don’t always have with college-age young people.
“Karlee Rock is another one, and Shannon Coulson. There’s a lot that they’ve done off the field. There’s a lot of maturity and leadership they can provide the younger players that you just can’t measure.”