The Loyola women’s softball team (8-12, 2-1) is entering the second half of its season after the team’s tough non-conference opponents helped them prepare for its Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) games. The team opened up its Valley play in a 2-1 series against Bradley University March 19-20.
While the COVID-19 pandemic posed as a roadblock for the team, head coach Alicia Abbott said she and her team are building back up and challenging themselves more than they ever have. One way the team is doing so is by bettering their relationships.
The tight-knit bond between the players ramps up the amount of trust they have in one another, Abbott said. Though there are a higher number of underclassmen and less-experienced players on the team, Abbott said the upperclassmen have taken the younger girls under their wing and helped them feel more welcomed — something they didn’t have as underclassmen due to the pandemic.
“They all enjoy spending time with each other,” Abbott said. “I think from a team bonding perspective, it’s probably the closest any of our programs have been, at least in the three years I’ve been here, so that’s great to see. I think that’s kind of been the biggest driver of their success so far.”
The team bonding happens on and off the field Abbott said, but mostly outside of practice. She said the players are always with each other hanging out at their apartments and dorms, but they also hold team dinners, birthday parties and other celebrations together.
The team’s season began with a lot of difficult opponents, but Abbott emphasized that she scheduled it intentionally challenging for her team to make conference games seem easier. Some notable non-conference games include No. 6 Florida State University, No. 67 University of Virginia and No. 59 UNC Greensboro, all in the top 100.
One weekend that was particularly tough for the team was the Wildcat Invitational in Tucson, Arizona March 4-6.
Loyola went against another four top 100 teams throughout the weekend — No. 39 Boise State University, No. 69 Iowa State University, No. 63 Texas State University and No. 31 University of Arizona. Abbott said playing these teams, especially two in the top 50 was significantly above what they’re now playing in the conference.
Though the team lost against each of the four top 100 teams, it pulled a 7-0 win against the University of North Dakota, who rank just outside of the top 100 at No. 111. Though the weekend was difficult for the team due to their losses and the tough competition, Abbott said it set them up to succeed further down the road in MVC games.
The Ramblers are 6-11 in non-conference play but Abbott said they’ve gotten experience against higher caliber opponents that has set them up well going into conference play.
The Ramblers are seeing success in multiple different places on the field Abbot said. She noted her pitching staff is doing well on the mound, with two first-years and two seniors making up the position group. One pitcher who especially stands out to her is first-year Peyton Pepkowski, who was named MVC Pitcher Of The Week March 22.
Another area the team excels in is its defense. Loyola holds an average of .97% in fielding, at .95%, meaning they are able to catch or pick up .97% of balls hit in a game. Abbott credited the team’s personnel in the recent years to helping ramp up their defense, but also the players’ relationships, as their trust in each other on the field is stronger.
With one conference game under its belt, the team is looking toward the rest of their season in Valley play. As always, the Valley is a tough and competitive conference. Abbott said though the competition is hard, anyone can still beat anyone on any given day— that’s the nature of the Valley.
One aspect of conference play Abbott is looking forward to is only having one team a week to prepare for, instead of three or four, which they were doing in non-conference — something Abbott said she did intentionally.
“It’s a lot of information [and] it’s nice to be able to spend an entire week preparing for one team,” Abbott said. “I think that’s the biggest advantage of actually walking into conference is that you’re getting more time to invest in your opponent that weekend, knowing it’s just the one opponent.”
With her team specifically, Abbott said she’s excited for what the rest of the season will bring, because her team hasn’t reached its full potential yet, though she said she can’t wait until it does.
The Ramblers are set to return to the field in Carbondale, Illinois in its second Valley matchup of the season against Southern Illinois University. First pitch is scheduled for 1 p.m. CT and will be broadcast on ESPN+.