After finishing 27-26 overall and 9-17 in Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) play last season, the Loyola softball team returns more experienced as it welcomes back 12 of its 15 scholarship players.
The Ramblers finished with a winning record for the first time since 2013 and made the MVC tournament for the first time since 2014.
Loyola lost three senior starters from last season to graduation — outfielder Erica Nagel and infielders Alyssa Mannucci and Jacquelyn Murphy. With five first-years joining the roster, head coach Jeff Tylka said his team has the talent to fill the voids left by the trio.
“We lost those three seniors … so you’re obviously going to lose that experience,” Tylka said. “But [first-years] … are not like they were when I first started only seven [or] eight years ago where they need a year to kind of figure things out. They come in a little bit more prepared now.”
The departures of Mannucci and Murphy leave two positions open for Loyola: second base and first base. Tylka said he’s not sure who’ll fill those spots when the season starts, but he’s been keeping an eye on how the team practices to determine who gets the nod in the starting lineup.
The Ramblers return both of their pitchers from last season in juniors Kiley Jones and Keenan Dolezal, who led the MVC with a combined 2.40 ERA last season. Jones’ 19 wins ranked third in the MVC last season and put her in a tie with former Rambler and current assistant coach Brittany Gardner for second-most single-season wins in program history. Jones said she wants to continue the success this year and earn MVC recognition.
“This year, the main goal is to make first team all-conference,” Jones said. “That’s my goal … I have the team behind me to help me get not only to my personal goals, but I’m also very aware that my personal goals kind of mean nothing in the scheme of our team goals.”
The team also brought on first-year, left-handed pitcher Maddie Veres, who Jones said has a different way of pitching in the circle.
“[Veres is] a gift to our team this year. She has been absolutely fantastic,” Jones said. “Her being a lefty and just having a different speed and different spin than the both of us adds something incredible to the team that we didn’t have before … also, it’s really comforting to know that there’s one more person in the dugout if we need that.”
Sophomore outfielder Shannon McGee also returns to the lineup this season after leading the team with a .290 batting average as a first-year. She said instead of focusing on her own goals this season, she’s focusing more on the team.
“This year, to improve, honestly I’m just going to work more with my team rather than as an individual,” McGee said. “I feel like we have so much to grow as a team that working on that aspect will improve the individual more.”
Loyola was picked seventh out of 10 teams in the MVC preseason poll Jan. 31. McGee said the players aren’t worried about the poll because the team was picked 10th last season and finished eighth, which was enough to get to the MVC tournament as the top eight teams earn a spot.
“Seeing more people think we’re going to be better is kind of a good feeling,” McGee said. “But also being seventh is still lower [than we’d like], but that means [we’ve] got nothing to lose. So I do expect us to make the tournament and exceed being seventh.”
Loyola is scheduled to kick off the 2018 season as it hosts the Total Control Invitational Feb. 9-11 at The Dome in Rosemont.