Ashland University's softball team is the No. 5 seed in the 2016 Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament, Friday-Sunday (April 29-May 1) in Findlay, Ohio.
That in and of itself isn't a big deal. The Eagles, however, are used to being "the hunted" at the GLIAC tourney. This year, AU's role has been reversed.
"It definitely is a goal that you have at the beginning of the season," Ashland head coach Sheilah Gulas said of qualifying for the conference tournament, which the program has done 16 times in 21 seasons in the GLIAC. "The thing that's different about this year's team is that, in the past, we've really started strong. By the end of the season, you're just trying to hang on and maintain things.
"It definitely is a different role that we have. We know that we haven't gotten it done other years in the GLIAC Tournament. We have done well, but we haven't won it. It's going to be nice going into this tournament without the target on our back, and just see what we can do."
The Eagles are 25-21-1 through the regular season, and will begin GLIAC Tournament play on Friday at 10 a.m. against No. 4 seed Ferris State (34-16) in Findlay. Ashland began 2016 at 10-13, but has gone 15-8-1 since.
"We started slow, and we really feel like we've been building and getting stronger every game, getting stronger every weekend," Gulas said. "We're building up to that point where we're right where we want to be. We've been able to settle into a lineup. We've been able to get a lot more consistency through the batting order."
Six Eagle starters are hitting above the .300 mark – senior first baseman Jen Moore (.368), senior left fielder Shelbie Prince (.343), junior center fielder Ally Farrah (.335), senior pitcher/designated player Sarah Alley (.328), junior second baseman Kalene Freshour (.312) and sophomore third baseman Marissa Caraballo (.306).
"We've definitely been getting more production in the bottom of the batting order," Gulas said, "and that's where we've seen those runs coming. I feel comfortable right now, one through nine in the batting order. That takes some of the pressure off the top."
In the pitcher's circle, Alley is Ashland's leader with a 15-8 record, a 2.62 earned-run average and 104 strikeouts. Since March 29, she is 11-3 in her last 14 decisions.
"It's great that we have Sarah, and she's finishing her career on a high note," said Gulas.
Another unfamiliar sight for the Eagles is not being a part of the Midwest Regional rankings. Ashland has made seven consecutive NCAA Division II postseason appearances.
"There's no tomorrow for us," Gulas said, "so we've just got to get out there and fight and get after every game and keep our season going as long as we can."