After the Loyola softball team flew out of the gates with its best start in program history, the Ramblers (17-7, 0-3) have lost seven of their 10 last games and were swept three games in their conference opener to Evansville University on March 18 and 19 before winning their home opener against Valparaiso University on March 21.
Loyola, picked to finish last in the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) in a preseason coaches poll, have had a surprise start to the season fueled by rejuvenated returning starters, including sophomore first baseman Katie Kasubke and leadoff senior hitter Alyssa Mannucci. Through 20 games, Kasubke has a .276 batting average and leads the team with three home runs and 17 RBIs. Mannucci is a powerhouse slugger and leads the team with a .293 batting average and gets on base 43.2 percent of the time.
But the biggest reason for the Ramblers’ early season success is due to the pitching staff’s dominance from the mound, according to third-year head coach Jeff Tylka.
“I don’t see us having the record or the confidence we have today without the tremendous job done by the pitching staff so far,” said Tylka. “Kylie [Jones] and Keenan [Dolezal] have carried the mail for us so far this season.”
Sophomore pitchers Jones and Dolezal have combined for 94 strikeouts and are averaging a combined 2.29 ERA, while only allowing 44 earned runs through 24 games. If the pitching duo can continue throwing the way they have to open the season, Tylka said he believes they can stay competitive in the MVC.
“I think the conference is something we’ve prepared a lot for and this preseason has shown that we’re ready for,” Tylka said. “We’re such a young team, but that’s what the preseason is for to refine and practice the little things we do and take it one pitch at a time.”
But that didn’t happen in the conference opener against Evansville. The Ramblers gave up 11 runs in three games, while only scoring three.
Although the team couldn’t get it done against the Purple Aces, Jones said the team has to build winning games into winning series to have the momentum carry Loyola through its MVC games.
“Firstly, I don’t think our team’s goal has changed at all; we still want to take it one game at a time but we’re definitely feeling a lot more confident going into the conference,” said Jones. “We simply want to focus on one series at a time and get that first win so we can pivot our focus towards a series win, this allows us to keep ourselves in check and keep our eyes on winning each series we play in.”
Loyola, which is a predominantly young team with 12 of its 17 players underclassmen, regrouped from the Evansville loss and won its home opener 4-3 against Valparaiso after pinch hitter Kristin Lea hit a base hit with the bases loaded in the eighth inning. This win snapped the Ramblers three game losing-streak, and gives them forward momentum heading into their five-game road trip.
Tylka said he believes there’s no reason to count out the Ramblers yet. He said he doesn’t believe there’s any reason his team can’t make a run in conference and compete for the conference title and the automatic bid in the NCAA tournament.
“I think our mentality hasn’t changed at all,” said Tylka. “We’ve got some good confidence going now into conference play and I think we can turn some heads.”
The softball team is scheduled to continue its conference schedule on the road against Missouri State University. The Bears are expected to host the Ramblers March 25-26 for a three-game series in Springfield, Missouri.