It's been a rough winter, weather-wise in Ashland, Ohio. Several storms have come in over the weekend, sending the locals to the grocery stores in a rush to stock their shelves in case they're home bound.
No such panic exists in the world of Ashland University head softball coach Sheilah Gulas. The Eagles enter the 2014 season minus just three starters from the 2013 team that went 29-20 and advanced to the NCAA Division II postseason for a fifth consecutive season.
"We certainly have some areas that are questions right now, but we have the personnel that can play there," said Gulas who is 801-413 in 27 years as a college head coach (598-289 in 17 years at Ashland). "We have options."
The Eagles open the 2014 season this coming weekend at Bellarmine where they will play the Knights and the Lincoln Memorial Railsplitters. Here's a look at the Eagles as they enter the season.
The Eagles return all four pitchers from last year's team. Few teams can boast that kind of depth and experience.
Sophomore left-hander Sarah Alley went 15-8 with a 3.01 ERA in 143.1 innings last season. She hurled four shutouts, struck out 105 and walked 32.
Junior righty Amber McDermott went 12-7 with a 3.37 ERA and pitched 128.1 innings. Together, the duo made 41 starts and completed 23 games.
McKenna Galloway, a junior right-hander, appeared in 15 games, starting seven. Zoe Myers, a sophomore righty, worked exclusively in relief and pitched in seven games. Sophomore righty Brittany Flanigan is also looking to gain innings.
"They all bring something different to the table," Gulas said. "They have confidence and they learn quickly when we throw new things at them. They always seem to find a way to get it done."
The Eagles have to replace a four-year starter in Tawna Garver. She was an exceptional caretaker of the pitching staff and a clutch hitter and much of the success of the pitching staff over this recent playoff run can be attributed to her presence.
Senior Kourtney Yarnall enters the season as the starter. She played right field the last two years, but she came to AU as a catcher and was Garver's understudy as a freshman. Working behind home plate will not overwhelm her.
"We needed her bat in the lineup, so she played the outfield," said Gulas. "When we needed her behind the plate she stepped right up. She knows how to call a game. Kourtney has such a good rapport with the pitching staff and is very confident behind the plate."
Yarnall hit .284 last season. She was second on the team in homers (8), second in RBI (35) and third in slugging percentage (.496).
Sophomore Bri Buckley will see time here and at third base. She played in 21 games last season and most of those came at third.
"Bri has a terrific arm and a quick release," said Gulas. "She plays the position differently because she's so quick. She has a quick arm, quick feet and she's a different style of catcher than what we've had."
Freshman Audrey Manahan owns a strong skill set but like most newcomers, will need to learn the college game and put everything together.
Up the middle, the Eagles return a pair of veterans in second baseman Cayla Seidler and shortstop Jamie Weber. Seidler is a four-year starter. She hit .277 a year ago with nine doubles and four homers.
"She's been at the top of the order throughout her career," reminded Gulas. "She's always gotten the job done and has been real steady for us. We're looking for her to have a strong finish to her career."
Freshman Kalene Freshour will provide relief for Seidler.
Weber started for the first time last season. The junior started all 49 games and hit .298 and owned a reliable glove.
"Jamie did an outstanding job defensively for us," noted Gulas. "When balls are hit to the left side of the infield I know Jamie is ready."
Sophomore Shelbie Prince could also see playing time here as well as in the outfield.
AU has to replace Jerrica Young at third base and Franki Gironda at first. Both earned all-conference laurels during their careers and Young led last year's team in homers (8) and RBI (38).
Buckley and fellow sophomore Kayla Prokopakis figure to get most of the work at third base. Both are emerging players.
"I feel good about third," said Gulas. "Bri is a strong hitter. She played for a state championship team in high school. Bri's played at a very high level and is strong defensively. She's had a year to develop as a college hitter.
"Kayla plays the game hard and she plays with a lot of enthusiasm," continued the AU head coach.
At first base, the Eagles figure to turn to the tandem of sophomore Jen Moore and Galloway. Moore was the starting designated player last season when she hit .300 with nine doubles, seven homers and 36 RBI. She was a second team all-conference selection.
Galloway had five at bats and banged out three hits. The coaching staff likes the way she swings the bat and she is talented enough to handle the defensive responsibilities at the position.
"They're both learning the position," offered Gulas. "They both need to just keep working and get experience. Jen was a successful hitter for us last season and we want to find her a permanent spot in the lineup. McKenna had some good at bats for us last year and can contribute at the plate."
Junior Taylor Menhart returns for her third season as the starting center fielder. She was an honorable mention all-conference pick in 2013. Menhart has been one of the GLIAC's best all-around hitters since she arrived on campus. Last season she hit .362 with 17 doubles, 3 homers, 24 RBI and a team-high .419 on-base percentage. She's an outstanding defensive player with great range.
Gulas has to decide how she will align the outfield on either side of Menhart. A year ago, Carly West hit .368 as the starting left field. That was the second highest batting average on the team. She also led the Eagles in stolen bases (8) and her range in the outfield is exceptional.
Freshman Ally Farrah has many of the same attributes as West and could see time in right field.
"Carly and Ally are both great outfielders," said Gulas. "They have great speed and are slappers. They have incredible range."
Other candidates to see time in right field are Prince and sophomore Erika Garant.
Gulas will use the early part of the season to see who emerges from this group of young players.
"They all have different strengths so we'll see what we need to be successful," said Gulas.
The designated player spot is wide open, too. Some would say that would be a cause for concern. Gulas takes a different approach. She's not lacking in candidates and this team appears to have a great deal of lineup flexibility. The versatility of this roster should prevent Gulas from being caught short-handed during a game and the Eagles will have a number of ways to attack teams and pitchers.
"Our Florida trip will give us an opportunity to see who our best hitters are," said Gulas. "We have a number of different people we can play."
This and That
A year ago the Eagles went 2-2 at the NCAA sub-regional in Indianapolis. The season's final loss came to Indianapolis, which was ranked first in the country. AU also went 2-2 at the GLIAC Tournament. Both of the losses were of the one-run variety and one came to ninth-ranked Grand Valley State…the home opener is Mar. 20 at Brookside Park against Lake Superior State.