So far this season, the Loyola softball team has recorded three shutout games — that’s three more than they achieved last season.
There’s a saying that “defense wins championships.” Sometimes, though, the best defense is a good offense — at least that has been the case for the Ramblers. That’s because in softball, dominant pitching from the mound goes as far as igniting the bats and getting an offense rolling.
Head coach Jeff Tylka and his team know this all too well. The Ramblers entered the 2016 season looking to bounce back from a dismal and difficult 2015 campaign in which the team finished with a combined 15-35 overall record.
Last year’s team also saw its two pitchers, Madison Hope and Ashley Rogers, post a very high 4.64 and 4.77 earned run average (ERA), respectively. Earned run average evaluates how many runs a pitcher is responsible for allowing to score per seven innings pitched (in softball), and Loyola’s offense struggled to play catch-up as Hope and Rogers labored to keep opposing teams at bay. In glaring contrast, Loyola’s opponents allowed the Ramblers far fewer runs, only giving up an average of 2.67 in 50 games.
Tylka, who’s in his second season as the team’s head coach after three years as an assistant coach, attributes much of last season’s struggles to injury.
“I think the biggest key for us is health,” said Tylka. “We got banged up with some injuries last year … we had a couple surgeries last year, and those kids are starting to get back their health and are contributing more.”
However, this spring season, Tylka’s roster looks to be turning the page and firing out of the gate. The team holds a 9-3 overall record with one month of non-conference play to go before Missouri Valley Conference play begins. The team had only won four games at this point last season. The team shut down North Carolina Central University’s lineup and the Ramblers displayed a resilient and promising offense in route to their 9-0 win at the Kennesaw State Classic tournament. They went on to blank Eastern Kentucky University and University of Iowa at the Total Control Invitational.
Tylka said he believes this early success is a testament to the more flexible pitching lineup. In 2015, Loyola relied solely on Hope and Rogers to start games and play as many innings as they could. The two pitched more than 160 innings each, and as any coach will say, overworking pitchers is always an issue when workhorses like these two begin to get taxed.
“[Hope and Rogers] did a great job of pitching through a lot of tired [games],” Tylka said. “Now that we have four pitchers, I think that’s where you notice the shutouts. Now that they’re healthy, and there’s four of them, they know they don’t have to go all the way, all the time.”
Instead of Rogers having to pitch every other game, she has the luxury of being able to take to the pitching mound just once every three games. This allows the pitching staff to rest and Tylka the ability to mix and match his pitchers with starts and relief appearances.
Tylka said he appreciates his surging offense and the pressure it takes off the pitchers. In the first eight games, several hitters have proved they were willing to carry some of that weight. Junior Erica Nagle is on a tear — she currently posts one of the top five batting averages in the country — and offensive leaders such as senior Brie Pasquale and junior Alyssa Mannucci are returning from injuries they dealt with last season.
A pitcher relies heavily on its defense, and the seven fielders behind the circle have so far proven their value for the Ramblers. Senior infielder Hannah Jenkins said good glove-work has played a part in keeping runs at a premium for the opposing side, as well as other key factors including defensive athleticism, durability and versatility.
“We have players who can play well anywhere,” said Jenkins. “We have backup, and our bodies are built for [the 50-game season].”
The Ramblers are scheduled to travel to Buies Creek, North Carolina, to compete in the Campbell Invitational March 4-8.