After going 12-9 during its non-conference season, the Loyola softball team (14-12, 2-3) started conference play March 17. The Ramblers opened Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) with a 2-3 record against Southern Illinois University (SIU) and Bradley University.
After having a 14-0 record out of the gates last season, head coach Jeff Tylka realized he needed to make the team’s schedule tougher in order to give the players a challenge. Loyola’s non-conference schedule featured games against teams with a high RPI such as Lehigh University, United States Military Academy and South Florida University.
“Last year, we had so much success early that I don’t think we were quite as prepared with as tough of a schedule as we could have had,” Tylka said. “When you are winning, the holes [in the lineup] aren’t as glaring. This season, we got to see some of our weaknesses early and work and build on those.”
Loyola opened MVC play against SIU March 17-18. The Salukis won the first game 9-1 via the eight run mercy rule, but Loyola took the second game 5-2 to even the series 1-1. SIU took the final game 5-4 in eight innings to win the series.
“It was the first time we’d ever won a game at Southern since joining the [MVC],” Tylka said. “Then, to be in extra innings in the third game put us right in a good spot to win our first conference series on the road.”
In the MVC preseason poll, SIU was picked to win the MVC. Sophomore outfielder Shannon McGee said keeping up with the Salukis meant Loyola was making progress.
“If we played them last year, we would’ve rolled over and played dead after they run-ruled us the first game,” McGee said. “But, we came back and had a really good battle, even the third game, too.”
Tylka said this means a lot in regard to the team’s improvement. He said the players’ growth is evident through their performances against SIU.
“I mean obviously you’d just rather win them all, but no, I think we get a little bit better each time we play,” Tylka said. “A little fewer mistakes and we’re capitalizing on some of the things we are struggling with early. So it’s nice to see some of the girls make adjustments.”
Against Bradley, the Ramblers split a doubleheader. The Ramblers took the first game 7-5 behind sophomore Shannon McGee’s two hits and three RBI. In the second game, Loyola went down 5-0 early but climbed back into the game, eventually losing 5-4.
McGee said she’s looking forward to this season because she knows the team has a good chance of going far in the MVC tournament. She said keeping up with a program as good as SIU strengthened this mentality.
“With how we competed with them this weekend, I have no worries for the rest of the conference,” McGee said. “If we compete with everyone [like] with how we competed with SIU, I have no worries.”
Junior catcher Katie Kasubke said the team has gotten close and bonded more than in previous years. As a result, she said everyone is ready to work together in hopes of a successful season.
“Everyone understands their roles this year which makes things a lot easier,” Kasubke said. “We are having a really good year and I think that we’ve grown a lot since the time we’ve started. So team-wise, it looks good and hopeful going into conference.”
While Kasubke praised the team’s improvements, McGee said the players still had things to work on — specifically closing in on a win during a close game.
“We haven’t been able to close the big ones,” McGee said. “We get to that point where we fight the whole game, then one mistake towards the end and it all crumbles on top of us. We do need to focus [on] closing the deal at the end of the game because to be able to close would turn half of those losses into wins.”
Going into conference, Kasubke said the team is hopeful because the players have a different mindset this year and think they have a chance to take home the tournament.
“Having that success last year and making it to the MVC tournament and seeing that we can compete,” Kasubke said. “This year we realize that we can compete and do well and go far in conference.”
The Ramblers are scheduled to take a break from MVC play as they take on University of Illinois at Chicago March 28 at Loyola Softball Park.