Despite carrying seven first-year players, the Loyola softball team (5-0) is off to its best start in program history.
The Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) preseason poll predicted the Ramblers would finish in last place out of 10 teams in conference. Loyola was not deterred by the coaches’ poll, boasting a perfect 5-0 record in the Total Control Invitational.
However, the perfect start might be because of a lack of competition at the Total Control Invitational.
At the Total Control Invitational, the Ramblers played IUPUI, Western Illinois University, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, the University of Detroit Mercy and Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. Those five teams are a combined 7-30 this season.
Wins against five teams with losing records will be very different than when the team starts conference play. The MVC, Including Loyola, has six of its nine teams at or above a .500 record this season.
Pitching was a possible weak spot during preseason, as Loyola returned only two pitchers from last season — sophomores Kiley Jones and Keenan Dolezal. Last year, Jones, who had the team’s highest earned run average (ERA) with 3.95, led the team in wins (10-7). Dolezal started in 11 games and led Loyola with a 3.28 ERA.
At the Total Control Invitational, the two pitchers remained effective. Jones threw two complete games and now boasts a 3.86 ERA. Meanwhile, Dolezal put on a strong performance, earning three victories and striking out eight.
The two pitchers have to stay healthy and consistent for the Ramblers to have a strong season. One way the duo can remain effective is to make sure neither works harder than the other, according to head coach Jeff Tylka.
“Our pitchers did a good job of balancing each other out,” said Tylka. “One would throw four or five innings and the other would come in and close. Then the one who closed would come in and throw the next game.”
Dolezal gave full credit to her teammates for the victories and said their support was helpful while she was in the pitching circle.
“It was good to [have] my team behind me,” Dolezal said. “They made some pretty good plays at different times and they … hit when they needed to and scored some big runs. That helped a lot.”
The team is in somewhat familiar territory with as hot a start to nonconference play as last season. Last year, the Ramblers started 15-7, including going 3-2 at the Total Control Invitational. That success didn’t last though, as the team went 6-21 in MVC play to finish 21-28 on the year. The team lost four seniors to graduation and two sophomores — including pitcher Madison Hope, who only started six games — to transfers after last season.
Despite back-to-back quick starts, there’s something different between this year’s squad and last year’s.
Junior shortstop Jamie O’Brien said the team is doing more mental exercises during practice. Instead of practicing on Wednesdays, the team gathers in a conference room and watches videos from Brian Cain Peak Performance. Mental conditioning coach Brian Cain teaches players the mental side of the game, and O’Brien said those sessions help tremendously on the field.
“[The videos] told us to ‘play in the moment’ and ‘let the little things go,’” O’Brien said. “I think this year, our team has been able to … let [errors] go because [they’re] in the past and you can’t do anything about [them].”
Dolezal said while the mental training has been key, trusting the defense is important down the stretch to minimize the amount of pitches she throws.
“There are definitely times where [players like O’Brien] made amazing plays in the field,” the Barrington, Illinois, product said. “Then there were times we … struggled to get an out. So we just have to clean up little things there.”
Tylka added that while the fast start is great, he felt the perfect opening doesn’t show anything except the team played well that weekend. He also added that the depth shown during the weekend is a big takeaway.
“I’m pretty sure everyone … pinch hit or [pinch ran],” Tylka said. “There are a lot of [players] who did things well. Every inning, we had a chance to score.”
The Ramblers will look to keep the streak alive when they’re expected to travel to Madeira Beach, Florida, for the Madeira Beach Invitational Feb. 24-26.