Coming off a 23-27 record in 2018, the Loyola softball team was picked last out of 10 teams in the 2019 Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) preseason poll Jan. 30 despite returning 10 players. The team will open up its season Feb. 8 against University of Missouri Kansas City at the Total Control Sports Invitational.
In the offseason, the team picked up four first-years from across the country. Head coach Jeff Tylka brought in two infielders to fill the voids left by versatile seniors, Jamie O’Brien and Ashley Parenti, who graduated last year. He also signed a new pitcher and catcher to add depth to the Ramblers’ rotation and back up senior MVC All-Defensive Team catcher Katie Kasubke.
Beyond additions made on the field, off the field Tylka hired former Trinity Christian College head coach Jackie Manrique as an assistant coach. Manrique’s arrival to the team brings a new set of eyes on Loyola’s pitchers after the departure of former assistant coach and 2014 Loyola graduate Brittany Gardner.
Coming into the season, junior outfielder Shannon McGee was the only Loyola player named to the All-MVC team after a 2018 season in which she led the team in nearly every offensive category. She finished last season batting .377, which ranked tied for fifth in the MVC and sixth in Loyola program history, with an OPS of .997 and 84 total bases.
Last year, the Ramblers ranked third in the MVC with a team ERA of 2.73 and seventh with a .960 fielding percentage. But with so many new additions to the team, McGee said it’s hard to set reasonable expectations on the Ramblers coming into 2019.
“We’re still a young team,” McGee said. “My expectation is to prove our preseason poll wrong. I think we are so much better this year than anyone expects us to be. I think teams think they are going to run all over us, but that is not the case. I think this team is the best out of the three years I have been here.”
In the circle, Loyola will be led by senior Kiley Jones. She was electric last season, posting a 1.86 ERA, ranking fifth in the MVC, en route to tossing seven shutouts. First-year Sydney Ruggles is a new addition to the staff. In high school at Dundee-Crown in western suburb Carpentersville, she tossed 899 career strikeouts.
“My expectation is to prove our preseason poll wrong. I think we are so much better this year than anyone expects us to be.”Shannon McGee, Loyola outfielder
On offense, the team ranked seventh in team average in the MVC, hitting a .250 clip. Of the six players who finished the season batting above .250, five return this year. With additional offseason work, Jones said she feels the team should hopefully see improvement and begin to move up in the leaderboard.
Unlike previous years, this year all 10 MVC teams automatically qualify for the conference tournament.
“[As a team] we want to set our bar higher,” Jones said. “The goal is no longer just to win. We want to get a first round bye [in the MVC Tournament]. We are practicing as if we are already there, and that’s really exciting because I feel we get to refine our skills more that way.”
In conference play, the Ramblers are set to face challenges from Drake University and Missouri State University, who enjoyed success last season, finishing in the top 100 in the country and start this season ranked number one and four in the MVC, respectively. Loyola is slated for three straight games against the Bears March 16-17, and three games against the Bulldogs April 13-14.
The Ramblers are scheduled to open their season Feb. 8 at the Dome in Rosemont as part of the Total Control Invitational tournament.