Softball Preview - Eagles Have Strike Force To Rely On In 2011

Depending on one's perspective, a strike is either a right of the rank and file or another example of what's wrong with the union.

            Now here's one place where going on strike gets no argument - it will play a large role for the 2011 Ashland University women's softball team.  If the Eagles go with strikes – and they should thanks to battle-tested, success-laden pitching staff – they might not have a work stoppage until late May.

            AU is coming off a 36-13 season (20-6 GLIAC) and a second consecutive trip to the NCAA Division II playoffs.  A year ago, the Eagles advanced to the Midwest Regional championship series before losing two games to seventh-ranked Wayne State.

            In each of the last two years, a deep pitching staff has been the backbone of the program, the one variable that could be counted on day in and day out. That figures to be the case again in 2011. Here's a look at the Eagles as they prepare for the upcoming season.

            Pitching – Very few teams in the nation have a one-two punch like the Eagles have in junior Emlyn Knerem (Brunswick, Ohio) and senior Logan Hursey (Zanesville, Ohio/John Glenn).  Knerem is a right-hander with power, Hursey a lefty with touch and movement. Knerem was 23-5 with a 1.04 ERA last season. She hurled two no-hitters, was sixth in the nation in ERA (1.04) and seventh in strikeouts per seven innings (9.6).  The junior had 10 shutouts.  Knerem earned first team All-GLIAC and all-region honors and was a second team All-America (Daktronics).  She's gone 40-13 in her first two seasons.

            Hursey was 13-8 with a 1.67 ERA. She had five shutouts.  These two have been durable throughout their careers – a year ago this duo started all 49 Ashland games.  They are the reason AU was fourth in the country in ERA (1.31).

            "Emlyn's pitching very well," said AU head coach Sheilah Gulas, the 2009 and 2010 GLIAC coach of the year who is in her 15th season at Ashland (494-233 at AU/697-357 in 23 seasons).  "She has one more year of experience. She's definitely very focused and knows what she wants and is working very hard to get there.  The one thing we've been working on is more precision.  A rise ball isn't just a rise ball now. What do you do with each pitch?  We want her to be able, when a team has gotten on to her, to be able to precisely place the moving pitch better.  We want her to work on that and to gain more confidence in her changeup."

            Hursey has been a regular in the circle since her freshman year, so like Knerem, she's spent the offseason working on fine-tuning some things. There's no need for an overhaul.

            "The big thing with Logan is improving her control," noted Gulas.  "Her strength is keeping hitters off balance.  She's had a lot of success doing that and throwing a lot of ground balls.  Her presence in the circle is so big.  Logan is so strong mentally. She will attack the batter and get in their head."

            The Eagles have a third pitcher on the roster in freshman Carly Clark (Strasburg, Ohio).  She will have the luxury of learning from the two upperclassmen.

            "She comes from a program that has had success," stated Gulas.  "She throws hard and has good movement.  The major thing will be developing confidence in the circle."

            Catching – At the start of last season, this was a worry for Gulas. Then Tawna Garver (Mansfield, Ohio/Hillsdale) emerged as one of the top freshmen in the conference. Garver hit .341 with five homers (tied for second on the team) and 24 RBI. She was a rock behind the plate, starting 42 games and playing in a total of 46 games.  Garver was named second team all-conference.

            "She had a banner year," Gulas said.  "Tawna can really call a game, she was a tremendous help to our pitchers.  At the plate, Tawna's a tough out. She had a great freshman year for us and we look forward to what the future will bring."

            What Gulas would like to do is find a way to give Garver's body a break and let her serve as the designated player from time to time. That will happen if sophomore Alex Machen (Lebanon, Ohio) and freshman Kourtney Yarnall (Canton, Ohio/Perry) prove they can handle the catching chores.  Machen became an important part of the AU outfield a year ago and Yarnall also plays the outfield.

            "Both are good fundamentally," reported Gulas.  "They both need experience behind the plate. In Florida we've got to find time for them.  We aren't going to have a three-catcher rotation.  Both Alex and Kourtney are solid hitters.  They could both work their way into the outfield if not behind the plate."

            Machen did that a year ago, hitting .235 with five homers and 22 RBI. That power potential helped AU tremendously a year ago. Machen also came up with some exceptional plays defensively in right field.

            First Base – Over the last two years Hursey played here when she wasn't pitching. She's excellent defensively and she is a middle-of-the-order hitter with pop. Last season, the senior hit .381 (second on the team) with a team-high eight homers and 45 RBI (tied for first on the team). She had a team-high .667 slugging percentage. In her career, Hursey has banged out 19 homers.  She has been named first team all-region and All-GLIAC for two consecutive years.  A year ago, she was a second team All-America (Daktronics).

            One option this year is to put Hursey at designated player when she's not pitching. That clears the way for sophomore Frankie Gironda (Akron, Ohio/Hoban) to take over at the corner infield spot. Gironda came off the bench to appear in 35 games last season.  She provided relief at first and third base.

            "Frankie had a tremendous fall," said Gulas.  "She hits the ball very well and is a consistent hitter.  She's made some good strides during the offseason and it will help her that we're keeping her at one position."

              The Eagles could also turn to sophomore Lindsey Hartmann (Wooster, Ohio).

            "Lindsey brings speed to the lineup and her fundamental skills have improved both on offense and defense," said Gulas.

            Second Base – AU brings back experience at just about every position. This is the one spot the Eagles don't. They have to find a way to replace Carrie Hosier, who hit second in the lineup. A year ago, she hit .364 with a team-high 43 runs scored. She was successful on 16-of-17 stolen base attempts and had a solid glove.

            The top candidate to move into the starting lineup is freshman Cayla Seidler (Massillon, Ohio/Washington)

            "She's got a good glove and she's a true second baseman," Gulas said.  "Cayla reads the game extremely well. She's very confident out there.  Cayla's a quality bunter and hitter and can make things happen offensively."

            Kaely Stucin (Dover, Ohio) is pushing Seidler for playing time. Stucin played in 29 games a year ago, all off the bench.

            "Kaely brings us good speed and athleticism," offered Gulas.  "She needs to gain more confidence at second base.  Defensively, she has the tools."

            Another sophomore, Lauren Yelling (Lodi, Ohio/Cloverleaf), is looking to get involved in the picture here.  Yelling started a pair of games as a freshman.

            "I'd say the same thing for Lauren that I did for Kaely, she just needs to get confident out there," said Gulas.  "She has the range."

            Shortstop – Junior Bri Woody (Cleveland, Ohio/Magnificat) has started for the last two years and will do the same in 2011. Woody hit .232 last season with a homer and five RBI. Those offensive numbers should expand this season and her defensive game should also move forward.

            "Bri could hit second this season, she's an outstanding bunter," reminded Gulas.  "She's hit well in the past and she's healthy right now. Defensively, we know she can make the big play.  We saw that time and again last season.  I think with Bri, it's consistency, that's where she'll pick up her game.  Bri has a great arm and she's an outstanding baserunner.  She is that player that makes things happen on the field."

            When Woody needs a break, look for the Eagle to turn to Stucin or Yelling.

            Third Base – AU has no worries here thanks to the return of junior Alyssa Kelley (Mentor, Ohio).  Last season, Kelley hit .390 with a homer and 45 RBI. Kelley is a proven run producer, as a freshman she hit .331 and knocked in 24 runs.

            "Alyssa has come back and worked really hard," Gulas said.  "She played with a knee injury all of last season.  In the offseason she got in better physical shape and that's done great things for her game. Her range is impressive, she covers a lot of ground. As a former shortstop, she has an exceptional glove.  She has an outstanding mental game at the plate.

            "Alyssa loves coming up with runners on base," continued Gulas.  "She has an exceptionally good mental game at the plate."

            Garver is listed as the backup third baseman. As Gulas pointed out, she practices at the position and is talented enough to hold her own there.

            Outfield – The Eagles have the pieces here, it's just a matter of putting it all together. 

            The center fielder will be senior Lyndsey Brandt (Painesville, Ohio/Riverside). Brandt owns speed and an exceptional glove.  A year ago she hit .228 and went 9-for-10 on stolen base attempts.

            "I'd like to see her create a little bit more offensively," said Gulas.  "We might move her up in the order, she could hit second. Defensively we're asking her to take charge in the outfield. She covers so much ground in the outfield."

            Senior Erica Miller (Indianapolis, Ind./Franklin Central) will see time in both left and right field. Where she is stationed will depend on who the third outfielder will be that day.  No matter where she plays in the outfield, Miller is a good bet to hit. She's coming off a season that saw her hit .340 with 11 doubles and 19 RBI.  Those numbers earned Miller a spot on the All-GLIAC first team. As was the case last season, she's expected to hit leadoff.

            "She did a great job for us last year creating scoring opportunities," Gulas said.  "Offensively, we need her to continue what she gave us last year.  A year ago she improved her baserunning and made some good baserunning decisions."

            The Eagles could use several players in right field.  Machen is one option.  Freshman Carly West (Ashland, Ohio/Hillsdale) played on a state championship high school team a year ago and she's been impressive since arriving on campus.

            "She brings good speed and gets a quick read on the ball, she's really a center fielder," said Gulas.  "Carly has great range and a good arm.  She can create things on offense."

            Junior Jenni Goodrich (Phoenix, Ariz./Pinnacle) saw most of her action a year ago as a pinch runner.

             "She is a solid defensive outfielder," said Gulas. "She gets a good read on the ball both as a baserunner and in the outfield."

            Junior Chelsea Mayer (Versailles, Ohio) is looking to bounce back from injury.  Once she gets to full health, she could be utilized in a variety of ways.  A year ago, Mayer played in 39 games, mostly as a pinch runner. She was 5-for-5 on stolen base attempts.

            The Eagles have few worries about their veteran contingent.  The biggest concern appears to be getting a group of youngsters ready to play.

            "The one thing with our young players is they have to be ready to take advantage of opportunities," explained Gulas.  "They need to attack the game with confidence.  If they settle in and let the game play them, they'll see limited opportunities."

            About the only other area of concern for Gulas is how the Eagles handle the expectations that they will be one of the best teams in the conference and the region. Two years ago, AU was described as a surprise team.  A year ago, the Eagles were watched closely, but not like they will be this year. Gulas believes that this won't be an issue because of Ashland's veterans.

            "We have to keep our focus no matter what goes on game to game and day to day," Gulas said.  "A lot of our starting players have been contributing members of a championship program since their freshman year and we look for this to continue to take us to the next level."