It was an offseason of change for the Loyola softball team.
Former coach Jeff Tylka’s contract wasn’t renewed this summer after five years at the helm, The Phoenix reported. In August, Alicia Abbott took over after five years as associate head coach at Northern Illinois University — and inherited a team that finished seventh out of 10 teams in the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) last year.
The Ramblers lost five seniors from last year’s squad, including their top two pitchers — Kiley Jones and Keenan Dolezal — and all-conference catcher Katie Kasubke. With new faces on the coaching staff and in the lineup, Loyola was picked to finish ninth in this year’s MVC preseason poll.
But the Ramblers also bring back some key pieces on offense in senior outfielder Shannon McGee and junior first baseman Allyson Ivey, who were both named preseason All-MVC Jan. 29. Senior outfielder Jessica Shields — the reigning MVC Newcomer of the Year — also returns her .376 batting average, which ranked third on the team last year.
McGee said the low finish in the preseason poll wasn’t too much of a surprise, given how the Ramblers have fared in MVC play since joining the league in 2013. Despite winning 15 non-conference games twice in three years, Loyola has never finished higher than seventh in league play, doing so in 2014 and last year.
“I think the only way we would be able to prove that we shouldn’t be ninth is to finish better in conference this year,” McGee said. “We kind of proved the poll right last year with dropping the first [game] to Indiana State in the MVC Tournament. … We gotta do better in the MVC Tournament and gain that respect from [the coaches] to get more votes.”
Ivey said one area Abbott has stressed improvement in is defense. The Ramblers committed 56 errors last year — the fifth-highest in the MVC.
In fact, Loyola has finished in the top five in errors every year Tylka was coach except for 2016. Ivey said the team has focused on defense more in practice this year because it brought in two pitchers — a first-year and a transfer. That means the defense might have to step up so those pitchers trust the players behind them and don’t have to worry about striking everyone out.
“Our defense has gotten much, much stronger,” Ivey said. “All of our practices have been defensive-based a lot. To be able to back up those younger pitchers, you have to have a strong defense.”
On the whole, Loyola brought aboard six newcomers this season. Ivey and McGee said all six have fit in nicely and bring different pieces to the puzzle.
“This group of freshmen is just so funny to me,” McGee said. “Nothing can dim their mood. It’s pretty cool because as an ‘old lady,’ certain things tick you off. Then, you just look at a freshman who’s just so bright-eyed and ready to go and you’re like, ‘Ah, I need to be more like them.’”
With a few days left in the offseason, Abbott said she’s seen good signs from her group. Heading into the first tournament of the year, she said she’s not worried about the low placement in the poll. Instead, she said she’s turned it into a source of motivation.
“What’s really nice is we get to be the underdogs going into what we face,” Abbott said. “We have nothing to prove and everything to gain.”
Loyola is set to open its season at the Rambler Rumble, a three-day tournament it hosts Feb. 7-9 at The Dome at Parkway Bank Sports Complex in Rosemont. The Ramblers will play five games that weekend, starting with a matchup against the University of Nebraska at Omaha Feb. 7.