In January, the Loyola softball team (26-25, 9-17) was voted to finish last in the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) preseason poll. Looking to ignore the critics, the team set a goal: make the conference tournament in May.
Now, after finishing in seventh place in the conference standings, the Ramblers achieved that goal and are headed to Normal on May 11 to play in their second MVC tournament since joining the MVC in 2013.
The team got off to a hot start this season, winning its first 14 games, but lost 18 of its next 22. The offense woke up and helped Loyola win three of its last five series — including a sweep of Indiana State University — to get to the conference tournament for the first time since losing to Bradley University in the 2014 championship game. That tournament was also held in Normal.
The Ramblers’ coaching staff is familiar with the tournament atmosphere. When they made it in 2014, head coach Jeff Tylka was an assistant coach, and current assistants Brittany Gardner and Lauren Moore were seniors on the squad.
Now the head coach of a team that currently carries seven first-year students, Tylka said he feels making the tournament this year will have implications for the future.
“I think it’s big not only for the [first-years] we have now, but [also for] the kids that will come in next year and the ones that will come in the year after that,” Tylka said. “They see this is what we’re shooting for [and] these are the expectations … so, anytime you can do that with a young group like we have, it obviously bodes well for the future.”
Current seniors Jacquelyn Murphy, Alyssa Mannucci and Erica Nagel were first-years during the last tournament, but only Murphy saw the field — Mannucci and Nagel went down with injuries.
This year, all three will be healthy enough to take the field, and Nagel said she sees similarities between that team and this year’s.
“[Our first] year, we had a really special team and this year we have a really great team as well,” Nagel said. “The whole lineup … plays a role in winning every game.”
In the midst of the 4-18 slump, Loyola lost 12 of its first 13 MVC matchups this season. The penultimate loss of that stretch — a 15-0 defeat to Illinois State University on April 9 — was a wake-up call for the team, according to Nagel.
Nagel also said Tylka posted stats in the dugout after the ISU game, which put each player’s performance into perspective.
“Tylka put up our stats and we all went and looked … and, batting average-wise, everyone was below .200 or something,” Nagel said. “That was the turning point … sometimes you have to have a few rough games to get where you want to go in the end.”
One of the bright spots for this year’s team has been the pitching. Sophomore hurlers Keenan Dolezal and Kiley Jones are the only two pitchers on Tylka’s roster, and both are in the top 10 in MVC ERA and innings pitched. Even with just the two of them, Jones said she feels they were well prepared for this season.
“In both of our high school and travel ball careers, it was kind of the same way [as this season]: Keenan and I were handed the ball most of the games,” Jones said. “Even though we’re far removed from travel ball and high school, it’s nothing we haven’t faced before. So I think that has really helped us … knowing we’ve done it before and we can do it again.”
The Ramblers are scheduled to take on the University of Evansville in game one of the MVC tournament.