Ashland University's softball team comes into the 2015 season looking for a seventh consecutive season in the NCAA Division II playoffs.
Head coach Sheilah Gulas sees the potential for that to occur.
"I think the team knows what it takes to get there," said Gulas, now starting her 19th season at Ashland. "They understand that you've got to be your best every time you step on a field, and that's what we're working towards. They've got a great attitude."
The Eagles also are looking to qualify for the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament, something the program has done all but one time it has taken place.
"The conference is always tough, and that definitely is what makes or breaks you," Gulas said. "You have to get out there and play your best every day. The teams that have advanced in the super regional, it's been coming out of our conference recently."
Ashland boasts a veteran pitching staff, starting with 2014 All-GLIAC First-Teamer Sarah Alley, a left-hander who was a dual threat for the Eagles last spring. Alley was 11-9 with three saves and a 2.26 earned run average, while hitting .369, leading the team with 38 RBIs and adding 13 doubles and two triples.
"Sarah was a pleasant surprise last year, and as we look at our lineup right now…I couldn't even tell you what our top five would be. But with this team, it could change in the course of the season," Gulas said. "One of her strengths is she's good in RBI situations, doing what she needs to do. Hopefully, she's even better with that year of experience."
Fellow senior Amber McDermott was the team leader in strikeouts (80) while going 8-2 with a 3.26 ERA, and senior McKenna Galloway (0-2, 3.16) and junior Brittany Flanigan (5-6, 2.50) also are in the mix.
"Last year, it definitely was pitching by committee," said Gulas. "They each bring something different to the table, and we need each and every one of them."
At both catcher and third base, the Eagles have junior Bri Buckley (.262, 13 RBIs, three triples) returning, as well as senior Jerrica Young, who hit 22 home runs and had 79 RBIs in 2012-13 and comes back after a year away from the program.
"Jerrica and Bri, they know the position, they play it aggressively, they have strong arms," Gulas said. "They're just very well-rounded back there."
Also about Young, Gulas added, "She was away from the game for a year. She has a different perspective. She knows what it's like to not play. It's really coming in and giving it her all her final season. She's coming in with such a good attitude, and is ready for the challenge."
Also at third base will be junior Kayla Prokopakis, a .269 hitter last spring with two home runs and 18 RBIs.
Whomever the third baseman is will be paired with senior Jamie Weber at shortstop. Weber hit .310 with 12 RBIs in 2014.
"We've got a great left side," said Gulas. "With two of them being catchers, they still can stay in the lineup. You're looking at offense. We might need all three of them in every game. One of them could be competing in the DP spot. But we definitely have some great experience in that corner.
"We're looking for her (Weber) to have a strong senior year. Defensively, she makes so much happen on the left side of the infield. She'll find a way to get her glove on that ball."
There is an opening at second base with the graduation of Cayla Seidler, the team's third-leading hitter at .364 and second-leading run-producer with 31 RBIs in 2014. Looking to plug into that spot are sophomore slap hitter Kalene Freshour and freshman Marissa Caraballo, who also can play shortstop.
"They're young, and they've got speed over there," Gulas said. "Definitely need to learn the college game and need to develop those instincts you need as a second baseman, but they've got the tools to be very good at it. They're going to have opportunities."
Junior Jen Moore returns at first base after leading the Eagles in home runs (five) and finishing with 10 doubles, 29 RBIs and a .264 batting average in 2014.
"Jen learned that position last year, and really grew in that position," Gulas said. "She became a great fielder. She's got a great arm there. Really takes charge of the infield, and is a player who we can count on. She's gritty over there. We're looking for her to get back to where she was her first year and hit the ball hard."
In center field, Ashland boasts four-year starter Taylor Menhart, who is one of 50 players on the watch list for the inaugural Schutt Sports/National Fastpitch Coaches Association Division II National Player of the Year award. In 2014, she hit .419 with 17 doubles, 40 runs scored, three home runs, 23 RBIs and eight stolen bases.
"The big thing about Taylor is she's gotten better every year," said Gulas. "She's got a real strong work ethic, especially when comes to hitting. She knows the game. Defensively, she is outstanding tracking down balls. The total package in the outfield. We're looking forward to her taking some of that confidence and running with it her senior year."
Right field will again be patrolled by former shortstop Shelbie Prince. A junior, Prince hit .287 with six doubles, 17 RBIs and six stolen bases.
"She definitely learned and grew with the position last year," said Gulas. "She brings that experience back, with even another year of working in that position."
In left field, sophomore Ally Farrah will get the nod.
"Ally definitely has got some great speed out there, great range," Gulas said. "She's another left-handed hitter in the lineup. She's getting her opportunity this year, and she's ready to take it and run with it. Offensively, she's improved. She brings some good speed to the bases, too."
The designated player on a given day most likely will be whomever isn't in the field, but a hitter who needs to stay in the lineup. A player with offensive potential who may end up in key late-game pinch-hitting situations is freshman outfielder Shaye Kuhlman.
Gulas once again is assisted by Shannon Schaub and Tawna Garver, both alums of the program.
"Shannon has just been doing an outstanding job working with this team. She has taken parts of this program and run with it," Gulas said. "Does an outstanding job with the pitching staff. And also the strategy of the whole thing offensively, being that first-base coach, working with those runners to be aggressive. The more we can get them in scoring position, the better off we're going to be.
"Tawna just really brings that good experience, working with the infield, being that level-headed person, and she sees the field so well. She knows what it takes to get there. She is that great leader, because she's been there, done that."
The Eagles' 2015 schedule begins Feb. 21-22 at Southern Indiana with four games – two against SIU and two against Bellarmine.