When the call goes out for an interior decorator, the idea is to spruce up the inside of the house. Maybe it's a need for new wallpaper, a brighter shade of paint or a completely new design.
The 2012 Ashland softball team has no issues with interior design. The interior of this team - the entire starting infield, the starting catcher and the ace of the pitching staff - return from last year's 33-19 team (21-7 GLIAC). Head coach Sheilah Gulas has to sort out her outfield and make some decisions with her pitching staff, but there's no need for her to go looking for a new floor plan. Don't expect this team to be wall flowers when the postseason rolls around either. AU has advanced to the NCAA playoffs for three consecutive seasons and this year's team has the potential to make a good postseason run.
Here's how the Eagles look as they get ready to open the season this coming weekend against Bellarmine and Northern Kentucky.
Pitching – For the fourth consecutive year, Emlyn Knerem (Brunswick, Ohio) will anchor the staff. Knerem was 26-9 last season with a 1.70 ERA and 296 strikeouts in 226.2 innings. Batters hit .196 against her. Knerem was named first team All-GLIAC and first team all-region for the second straight year. She is 69-22 in her career. If all goes well this year, she may own just about every career pitching record at AU.
"She's really stepped up and challenged herself to make herself stronger," noted Gulas. "Emlyn's not going into this thinking about past success. She wants this to be her best season. I've seen that since the first day of fall practice. She's working to make everything one little step better."
Because of a lingering injury to last year's other pitcher, Logan Hursey, Knerem was forced to throw more last season than she ever did before. Gulas praised the senior for her willingness to pitch through fatigue.
"Last year Emlyn had to get us through the year," said Gulas. "This year, she has a good supporting cast."
"She's a key component because she's so different from the others," noted Gulas. "Sarah can mix it up and give us a different option in the circle."
McDermott and Galloway are going through the initiation process that most rookie pitchers experience. There are good day and bad days. What has impressed Gulas is that the good days outnumber the bad and as she points out, it's up to her to find a way to maximize their ability.
"Both of them have pitches that work and both have work-in-progress pitches," Gulas said. "Both had success in high school. They are in the transition from high school to college and they will be thrown into the fire. It might be a combination of all of them. I can't go much further than that right now. I am confident in all of them."
As Gulas points out, a year ago at this time both Knerem and Hursey were working through physical ailments. Now, Knerem is at full strength and she is supported by a strong group of freshmen. So, even though there is some youth here, the Eagles are still ahead of the game when compared to last season.
Catcher – Not much to fret about here. Junior Tawna Garver (Mansfield, Ohio/Hillsdale) has been named second team All-GLIAC each of the last two seasons. In 2011, she hit .276 with three homers, eight doubles and 25 RBI. What can't be judged numerically is what Garver has meant to the Eagles behind the plate.
"Tawna had those years working with Emlyn and Logan and that really helped her," said Gulas. "Her work ethic is unbelievable. It's remarkable what she's done with the pitching staff this year to bring it along. She's the kind of player you have to have behind the plate."
Gulas would like to give Garver a break from time to time by shifting her to the designated player spot. That could happen if freshman Jerrica Young (Loudonville, Ohio) continues to develop behind the plate.
"She's a good young catcher," offered Gulas. "She's been an infielder and she understands the game. The biggest thing for Jerrica is to learn from the players on the field. Jerrica has good offensive skills. She's a good all-around player who just needs to learn how to be a catcher. We want her to grow into it."
Infield – It's hard to find any team in the region with a better all-around infield, offensively and defensively, than what the Eagles put on the field.
At third base, senior Alyssa Kelley (Mentor, Ohio) is a gold level performer with the bat and glove. A second team All-GLIAC selection in 2011, she hit a team-high .377 last year with three homers and 33 RBI. She was second on the team (behind Hursey) in slugging percentage (.519) and on-base percentage (.442). She played in all 52 games last year and had four errors.
"Alyssa really worked hard getting into shape and she's in the best shape of her career," said Gulas. "She takes a lot of pride in both ends of the game. If we need that big hit, I hope she's at the plate."
Senior Bri Woody (Cleveland, Ohio/Magnificat) was named second team All-GLIAC last season. She's coming off the best season of her career. Woody hit .340 last season and was second on the team in homers (four) and tied for second in RBI (33). Woody was 12-for-12 on stolen base attempts. She also had a stellar season with the glove.
"Last year Bri made the transition from just being a player on the team to being a player who can make big plays offensively and defensively," Gulas said. "You look at some of the plays she made, those backhand plays, throwing out runners, those are unbelievable. We're looking for the same thing this year."
Sophomore Cayla Seidler (Massillon, Ohio/Massillon Washington) is back as the starter. Seidler hit .265 a year ago and had just five errors while playing in 52 games. She was an honorable mention all-conference honoree.
"Cayla's got a strong glove and she plays with a lot of confidence and instincts," said Gulas. "She's really challenged herself to get better. I look for her to use more of the field with her hits and show more patience at the plate. Cayla has a good mental approach."
Junior Franki Gironda (Akron, Ohio/Hoban) settled in at first base last year after serving as a reserve at the position as a freshman. She played well enough to earn a spot on the All-GLIAC honorable mention list.
"For Franki, it's definitely a good year for her to gain confidence," offered Gulas. "She's playing more aggressively than she ever has in an AU uniform. Losing Logan, we need that. She can step in and give us that power hitter."
The Eagles are working on their reserve corps around the infield. At third base, sophomore Carly Clark (Strasburg, Ohio) is getting a long look. A year ago, she went 4-0 as a pitcher and saw limited action at the plate.
"Carly has the potential to be a strong hitter," Gulas said. "She's a powerful athlete. She's just made the move to third and it's amazing some of the plays she's been able to make."
Freshman Jamie Weber (Orient, Ohio/Teays Valley) is penciled in as the backup at shortstop.
"Jamie is steady defensively and she's developing offensively," pointed out Gulas. "She needs to become a triple threat in the college game."
Junior Lauren Yelling (Lodi, Ohio/Clover Leaf) is getting work at second base. Yelling has several seasons behind her and that experience could help her take a step forward this season.
"We've worked with Lauren to be more consistent," explained Gulas. "We've been working with her on both ends of the game. We want her to just play the game and not think about a million things. All of her skills have improved. Now, when she's given the opportunity, she just has to make it happen."
Junior Lindsey Hartmann (Wooster, Ohio) is a defensive whiz at first base and that may get her into some games in the late innings when the Eagles are looking to protect a lead. Hartmann has also shown progress at the plate.
"Defensively she's ahead of the game," Gulas reported. "That's her top skill. Lindsey also gives us good speed on the bases."
Outfield – This is where the AU coaching staff has to make some decisions. A year ago, Lyndsey Brandt was one of biggest surprises in the GLIAC. Brandt was always a standout with the glove. But a year ago she hit .345 (third on the team), scored a team-high 41 runs and swiped 13 bases in 15 attempts. Brandt chased down balls all over the outfield and had one error while playing in all 52 games.
"They both have played center field," reminded Gulas. "Both are strong outfielders. We will probably put one in center and the other in left. That could be a rotation."
In right field, sophomore Kourtney Yarnall (Canton, Ohio/Perry) and junior Kaely Stucin (Dover, Ohio) are getting the bulk of the work. Yarnall switched back and forth between the outfield and catcher a year ago. She got off to a great start offensively and the coaching staff hopes a year in the system will pay dividends offensively and defensively. Stucin spent the last two years as an infielder.
"Both players need to be able to work in right and left field," said Gulas, who admitted that much about this spot will be determined in the season's first few weeks and who is able to make things happen offensively. "Kaely was a shortstop and she's got a good arm, good range. For her it's a matter of learning the mechanics in the outfield."
"Alexis can help us as a base runner, she gets some good reads," said Gulas. "Lyndsey has good potential with the bat."
Outlook – Last season, the Eagles advanced to the championship of the GLIAC Tournament where they lost to Tiffin. AU went 1-2 in the NCAA playoffs. Two years ago, AU made it to the super regional championship. This team has been through the postseason gauntlet and understands what it takes to win deep into the season. That trait should never be underestimated.
The Eagles averaged 7.8 runs per game last season with a .294 team batting average. Four players on last year's team had three or more homers. While it's true that the Eagles have lost Hursey (10 homers, 39 RBI), they have exceptional balance up and down the lineup. Many of the players in the lineup are a year older and the hope is that offensively, there won't be any drop-off.
"Our younger players have gotten experience," said Gulas. "We'll have people in different roles in the batting order. What we need is when you're out there, give us consistency. Our focus is it's OK to make one error. We can't have one turn into two. If we make an error, let's get out of it. When you're a young team that's the critical thing.
"Our players have to have the patience to let the team grow," continued Gulas. "I think we lost some games last season because we put more pressure on ourselves than our opponents put on us. I've told them, just play the game you love and get one percent better every day until the finish."