After going 15-4 in non-conference play, the Loyola softball team started Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) action March 16. The Ramblers brought with them a 1.21 team ERA — which ranked fifth in the nation — and a team batting average of .343. The Ramblers are set to bring these performances into their own conference to begin their journey through their conference.
Loyola faced Missouri State in three games the weekend of March 16. The Ramblers were swept over that weekend and now sit at 15-7 on the year. The Bears ended the season last year with the second-best record in the conference but were ranked fourth in preseason polls. They came out to a surprisingly hot start against the Ramblers to open up their own conference play.
Heading into the season, Loyola was ranked last in the MVC preseason poll. Since then, Loyola made it a goal to exceed expectations, and was off to its best start through 19 games since the 2017 season, when the Ramblers began the season 16-3.
“I think right now, we are in a good place, it’s anyone’s game still,” senior catcher Katie Kasubke said. “I think we need to build off the confidence we have built from non-conference play and take it forward.”
Looking at the competition within the MVC as conference play begins, Loyola boasts the most wins in the conference at 15. The same preseason polling that had the Ramblers last in the conference also ranked Drake University, Southern Illinois University and University of Northern Iowa as the top-three teams to beat.
So far, Drake and Southern Illinois are off to slower starts, with the teams sporting a 14-13 and 14-9 record as opposed to Loyola’s 15-7. But the two teams ended last season No. 1 and No. 3 in the conference, with Drake ending the year ranked 31st in the nation. Northern Iowa has started the year off 11-10 and is currently sitting in fourth in the MVC in wins.
“I think we are in a really good place for the start of the season,” Loyola head coach Jeff Tylka said. “I think we have had contributions top to bottom in the lineup. We’ve had girls step up for pinch hitting and pinch running opportunities. Our starters have done well, we have girls competing for spots back and forth. We’ve played really well against some really good teams, like Sam Houston State and Indiana.”
Overall, Loyola has had some stand-out players in tournament play. The Ramblers pitching staff of seniors, Kiley Jones and Keenan Dolezal, and sophomore Madison Veres have combined for eight shutouts so far.
Offensively, the Ramblers have been led by sophomore Allyson Ivey and pre-season All-MVC junior Shannon McGee, who both sit north of .430 in batting average.
“Offensively, I don’t see a hole in the lineup,” Tylka said. “I think all the girls can do it one through nine, and we have players on the bench that can do it too. I think having that flexibility is a big piece, we have players that can do well against lefties and righties.”
Loyola has the next two and a half months to decide its fate within the MVC. The Ramblers’ first home game will come against Bradley University March 30. If the MVC ends up as close as it did last season, each of these conference games will be crucial to Loyola’s success, according to Tylka.
“I think The Valley has quite a few wins against ranked teams already, so I feel like everybody will be our competition,” Tylka said. “There were one and a half games that separated fourth from tenth. The goal for us to win each weekend, win two out of three and see where you are at the end and see if you’ve got a chance to go to regionals.”
Before the Ramblers’ home opener March 30, they are set to play University of Evansville in a three-game series starting March 23 before coming back up to Chicago to play University of Illinois at Chicago March 26.