Four NCAA Div. III championships
PELLA—Even after piloting Central College to its 25th NCAA Division III softball tournament berth and the team’s 13th trip to the national finals, the thing about playing in national tournaments that coach George Wares remains most convinced of, is how hard it is to get there.
Last season’s 32-10 squad tied for seventh in the NCAA finals after sharing the program’s 12th Iowa Conference crown. But the return of six position starters and an all-American pitcher means little once a typically torturous 2014 schedule begins.
“Last year’s seniors went 38-8 in the Iowa Conference and 106-29 overall,” Wares said. “Yet they only made it to the national tournament once. Our players are smart enough to know we’ve got to keep working hard just to put yourself in position to possibly go (to the national tourney finals).
Stay humble and stay hungry is the team mantra in 2014 and the Dutch already endured enough misfortune in the preseason to ensure that the former will not be an issue. Highly regarded sophomore pitcher Kelsey Stender, who was 10-4 with a team-best 1.31 earned run average in a promising freshman campaign, is sidelined with a serious injury and elected to not attempt a late-season comeback. Freshman Rebecca Luxton, ticketed to contend for the open position at catcher, was just cleared to begin regular workouts following off-season surgery when she sustained a season-ending injury the week before spring practices began.
But the Dutch have not readjusted their goals and Wares said last year’s tournament experience was invaluable for paving the way to future success.
“The players realize, after two pretty good years, that competing for a national title is not that far off,” he said. “Now that they’ve been to a national, I think the hunger remains for them to go back and take it a step further. I would hope that the belief level is as high as ever now that they’ve had that experience at the national tournament. But they also realize what we had to go through to get there, with a 1-4 start last year and all the injuries we had to deal with.”
Central has never won a national title without at least one all-American pitcher and the Dutch have one returning in junior Mallory Schulenberg, who continued her remarkable ascent from unheralded recruit to become one of the nation’s best hurlers. After experiencing little high school success, Schulenberg emerged to post a 16-4 record last year and a 26-4 career mark. She compiled a 1.51 earned run average, striking out 81 battings and walking 34 in 120.1 innings.
“Mallory had an amazing season,” Wares said. “Her performance in the regional ranks up there with the best we’ve ever had and there’s no reason to expect anything less from her this year.”
She won’t be backed by Stender this spring but senior co-captain Brie Haycraft is more than capable of filling that role. Haycraft’s career has been hampered by a chronic injury, however. After a 9-2 freshman season and a 10-6 sophomore campaign in which she threw 105.1 innings, Haycraft threw only 35.1 innings in going 3-2 last year, but had a team-best 1.39 earned run average. Wares will likely limit her innings early in the year, even if she’s throwing well, in hopes of having her in top form for the stretch run.
“Brie’s doing about everything she can to prepare for the season,” Wares said. “There’s nothing I would like more than to see her have a really good year. We’ll rest her when necessary, but when she’s on, she’s a tough pitcher to deal with.”
Wares is hoping the Dutch have a sleeper in sophomore Trisha Smith, who threw for the junior varsity last year.
“I think our surprise this season is going to be Trisha,” Wares said. “She’s going to be a very good pitcher someday and it could be this year. She’s done as much as any player we have to get ready. She’s a strong kid. She needs to develop more confidence and become more savvy as a pitcher, but she’s got all the tools.”
With 16 games in nine days in Arizona, all three pitchers will see plenty of action.
Junior Katie Canney emerged as a productive player at first base after transferring to Central a year ago, but is moving behind the plate to fill a key vacancy there.
Getting an early look at first base is junior Kaitlyn Matzen, a transfer from Indian Hills, who displayed good power numbers as a junior college player and is now adjusting to Division III competition.
“Kaitlyn would be the first to admit that she had to make a transition,” Wares said. “But if you look at her numbers at Indian Hills, everything says she’ll do well when she gets into games here. She’s a viable option.”
Junior Karlee Rock is contending as well. A first-team all-conference honoree as a designated player last year, Rock is also a productive offensive player. She hit .253 last year with three homers and 25 RBIs. Finding a spot in the field for Rock would give Wares some additional lineup flexibility.
“Karlee has some experience at first base,” he said. “And she obviously gives us some offense.”
Promising freshman Abbie Voas of Chanhassen, Minn. could force her way into the lineup somewhere.
“It depends on what we do at the other positions but we will consider her at first,” Wares said.
Central has a couple of experienced and talented options at second base. Speedy junior Abbey Strajack is a catalyst of the Dutch offense and took over at second after receiving third-team all-America honors as a designated player in 2012. Last year she hit a team-high .429 with 14 stolen bases and 12 RBIs and scored 25 runs. But she missed 16 games, including nearly all of the conference season, with injury.
That gave an opportunity to senior Chelsea Greiner, who surprised by flashing a dependable glove while filling in. She scored 14 runs and stole nine bases and wasn’t an offensive liability despite a .174 batting mark.
“We’re in good shape with both,” Wares said. “They’re two experienced players. I still give Chelsea a slight edge defensively and Abby has a big edge offensively. It’s hard to keep Abbey out of the lineup. We feel she’s one of the best leadoff hitters in the country.”
Greiner will still see action as a defensive replacement and pinch-runner.
“I thought Chelsea responded very well when Abbey was injured,” Wares said. “We’re very comfortable with what Chelsea can do.”
Junior Kallie Schive will also get some work at second in practice to help develop more depth.
There are no questions at shortstop beyond who will play behind senior Annie Sarcone. A second-team all-America pick and conference offensive player of the year in 2012, Sarcone is in her fourth year as a starter. She was a first-team all-league pick in 2011 and 2012 and received second-team honors last spring. Sarcone, who competed in basketball for three seasons, gave up the sport as a senior to get an earlier start on the softball season.
After hitting .374 as a sophomore, Sarcone batted .312 in 2013 with three home runs and 29 RBIs.
“It was her choice to not play basketball and she took advantage of that by putting time into different parts of her game,” Wares said. “She’s already one of the best shortstops in the game. If she improves even a little she’s capable of being an all-American again.”
Greiner and Voas are the likely options that Wares hopes he doesn’t need at shortstop.
Junior Whitney Sowers grabbed the third base job in 2012 and hasn’t let go. She hit .344 with 13 doubles, two homers and 27 RBI while stealing nine bases. Sowers is a gritty defensive player as well.
“You can’t do anything but feel good about Whitney,” Wares said. “She’s very steady and doing everything she can to keep improving. She played through a lot of pain last year and was still solid. As a hitter she’s a little streaky but even when she’s struggling, she’s very competitive at the plate and usually produces a good outcome.”
Voas will likely serve as a back-up at third, as well.
The Dutch have to replace the league’s offensive player of the year at catcher, four-year starter Caitlyn Meyer. Canney is making the transition to catcher for the first time in college but has high school catching experience and spent a lot of time there during fall drills.
“Katie brings a toughness that you like to see and has the kind of personality you want behind the plate,” Wares said. “She did catch in high school so it’s not like she’s never played there, but she just has to learn how to play the position here. A lot of is building the connection between the catcher and myself—what we’re doing and why.
“She’s got a very good arm, so I’m not worried about that and has the tools. She also showed she’s capable of hitting at a pretty high level.”
Canney hit .314 in her first season with the Dutch, belting five home runs and driving in 24 runs while scoring 16.
The Dutch also have a solid defensive option in junior Dana Van Renterghem. She appeared in seven games last year in addition to junior varsity action.
“A lot of people probably didn’t expect Dana to do as well as she has,” Wares said. “But defensively, going in, she’s the best catcher on the team. She’s going to get some games this year. The thing we’ll have to see is how much she’s improved offensively and can she handle the pressure of games well enough to compete for a spot.”
Left and right field are both open, although senior co-captain Jordan Overland has experience in left. The team’s Most Improved Player Award winner in 2012, Overland also received the prestigious NCAA Elite 89 academic award at last year’s national tournament, based on her 3.96 GPA. After batting .314 in 2012, she missed nearly the entire conference season due to injury last year and her average dipped to .091.
“Jordan’s had some success,” Wares said. “She showed signs as a sophomore of being a quality slapper. Last year was kind of a yo-yo season for her with the injury. She didn’t do what she’s capable of offensively, but she’s still solid out there on defense.”
Wares likes the promise of freshman Sarah Bowen of New Sharon.
“Sarah has got the tools,” he said. “She runs well and she’s strong. And she’s got the ability to both swing the bat and lay the bunt down. She’s got the potential to play at a high level and I think she can.”
Schive is also working out in left to give Central another option. Wares likes what he’s seeing from her at the plate during preseason indoor drills.
Last year’s Most Improved Player Award winner, speedy junior Paige Heesch, is back in center field after a year as a starter. She hit .254 with 12 runs scored and six stolen bases in 2013.
“(Associate head coach Alicia) O’Brien has done a lot of work with her on becoming a slap hitter,” Wares said. “Because of her athleticism and speed, she could become more of a threat at the plate.”
Bowen could fill in as a center fielder, if needed, Wares said.
Senior Lexi Cessna saw some action in the outfield last year, primarily in left field. Her dependable glove could win her a starting spot in right field this season. She had just 15 at-bats last season but often saw time as a defensive replacement.
“Lexi can play either corner position in the outfield,” Wares said. “She’s done a lot to put herself in that spot. She knows her limitations offensively and is very good at shortening up and putting the ball in play.”
Junior Shannon Coulson has similar credentials, with most of her experience coming as a pinch-runner, with occasional defensive duties in the outfield.
“We’ll look at Shannon,” Wares said. “She’s in very good shape and has been a very solid defensive outfielder. The question with Shannon is how much offense will we get? But she’s at least a defensive replacement possibility.”
Senior Taylor Williams has earned a shot and brings a bigger bat.
“Taylor has improved defensively,” Wares said. “She knows there are some things she has to do better to get playing time, but she’s definitely in the mix.”
Freshman Felicia Schulty of Wellman will likely contribute eventually.
“Felicia is behind the others defensively,” Wares said. “Fundamentally, she’s pretty raw. But she’s very competitive and very coachable. She probably swings the bat as well as any of our freshmen. We’ll see how she progresses.”
While there’s plenty of uncertainty in the outfield, Wares likes his depth.
“We’ve got enough options that we can make changes during games,” he said. “In late innings we can put a defensive lineup out there. We have some flexibility.”
Rock won the DP job last year and is the frontrunner to retain the spot, but if she sees any playing time at first base, Wares will need to look for help. Schulty and Bowen would likely get the first call.
“It’s a big position,” Wares said. “You look at what Karlee does consistently at the plate, it makes a big difference.”
It’s especially important because some big bats were lost to graduation and there are several spots in the Dutch lineup that are skewed towards defense. Yet Wares sees possibilities for some production.
“Having Abbey Strajack back, hopefully for an entire season this year, will help,” he said. “And I think Whitney (Sowers) and Annie (Sarcone) can improve a notch over last year. We won’t know what type of offensive team this is going to be until we start playing games.”
Wares traditionally seeks out the toughest competition he can find and, by that standard, the 2014 schedule is a success. Central has nine games against teams ranked in the NFCA Division III preseason poll, including No. 7 Luther, No. 11 St. Thomas (Minn.), No. 17 Washington-St. Louis (Mo.), No. 21 Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (Calif.) and No. 24 Coe.
The Iowa Conference, still the deepest softball league in Division III in Wares’ eyes, will likely again be a skirmish between Luther, Coe, Simpson and Central for the top spot. But, he warns, be wary of the rest of the league schools as well.
“Loras, Dubuque, Wartburg and Buena Vista, in particular, continue to get better,” he said. “Against the top teams you need to be more than (NCAA) tournament-ready. But any of the other teams can steal one away from you and those kinds of losses can keep you from winning the conference.”
The team’s season-opening spring break trip to the Tucson (Ariz.) Invitational Games March 14-22 also features some other top southern California squads: Chapman, La Verne, Pomona-Pitzer and Whittier.
“We’ll be tested pretty early,” Wares said.
Beyond the conference, job one remains landing one of those coveted Division III tournament berths. The tourney format has changed and now mirrors the Division I bracket, with an extra round of play added before the national finals. Following the May 9-11 regional will be a two-team super regional May 16-17 before the finals are staged May 22-27 in Tyler, Texas.
Regardless of the path, it won’t be an easy one. But Wares can’t wait to get started.
“I think we’ll be in the mix again,” he said. “We’ll have to get a break or two, and, as always, we need to do the little things right.”