After finishing 21-28 last season — including a Missouri Valley Conference (MVC)-worst 5-19 — Loyola’s softball team lost four players to graduation while two transferred out of the program.
The Ramblers came into the season with 12 underclassmen, making up for the missing numbers with seven first-year recruits. Given the lack of experience, the Ramblers were picked to finish last in the MVC for the second year in a row.
But head coach Jeff Tylka said he feels that the underclassmen bring some more depth to the team, which means there will be more competition for spots.
“The … two spots we’re not huge with depth are shortstop and catcher,” Tylka said. “We have a couple kids who can play [third base, second base and first base], and there’s four to six outfielders competing for the first three spots.”
Of those 12 underclassmen, the Ramblers are only carrying two pitchers in sophomores Kiley Jones and Keenan Dolezal. Last season, Jones appeared in 23 games for Loyola, finishing with a 10-7 record and a 3.95 ERA. Dolezal was in the circle 27 times, leading the team with a 3.28 ERA while also going 3-6.
Jones said confidence is the key for Dolezal and herself to stay effective throughout the season.
“I think we have a positive outlook on having two pitchers,” said Jones. “Even if one of us gets in a hole, we know the other one will be there to pick us up whether that be game to game or pitch to pitch.”
With softball, teams can ride one pitcher during the season, as evidenced by Oklahoma University’s run in the College Softball World Series last year when sophomore Paige Parker threw every inning of the series to win it all.
Jones said that with two pitchers, they’ll both get their innings and one won’t have to throw more than the other.
Tylka confirmed the plan was to use a pitching platoon so neither pitcher gets overworked, saying Jones and Dolezal have thrown many more innings in past seasons than they will this season.
“They both threw well over 400 innings … [between] high school ball and travel ball,” Tylka said. “Those [players] are going to be picking up 50 to 60 innings, so it’s well within their comfort level to throw that many innings.”
Tylka also said the team is not using the preseason poll as motivation for this season, saying the team goal of reaching the conference tournament was set before the poll came out.
“We have one kid who has played in the conference tournament,” Tylka said. “Their goal is to find a way to get there and … win one game each weekend [to get there].”
Also returning this season is senior outfielder Erica Nagel. Nagel is coming off the best year of her career, setting a Loyola and Missouri Valley record with her .453 batting average while also logging a .494 on base percentage. Those numbers earned her National Fastpitch Coaches Association Second Team All-Midwest Region and First Team All-MVC honors.
This season, she was named preseason All-MVC, and while she said the honors are great, she’s focusing on the team this season to prepare the underclassmen for what’s to come.
“I think … the seniors are the leaders of the team,” Nagel said. “We know what it’s like to play in conference games … [we can help] the first-year be mentally prepared for the season.”
The team is scheduled start the season on Feb. 10 when it hosts Western Illinois University and Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) to open the Total Control Invitational in Rosemont, Illinois.