There are times when a college coach can be likened to an airport. There are arrivals and there are departures. Sadly, like the airlines, there often seems to be a problem with time.
Is there ever a good time to lose three players like pitcher Emlyn Knerem, third baseman Alyssa Kelley and shortstop Bri Woody? Those three former Ashland University softball players were four-year starters. They helped the Eagles reach the postseason four consecutive years and win 20 or more GLIAC games four consecutive years.
In 2012, Knerem was an All-American and the GLIAC pitcher of the year. Kelley was second in the conference in batting average and was the GLIAC co-player of the year. Woody was like a vacuum cleaner at shortstop, she provided strength up the middle, mentally and physically, throughout her career.
The sad news – all are departures.
Now the good news. Ashland has seven returning starters from last season's 42-17 team (23-9 GLIAC). As for arrivals, AU head coach Sheilah Gulas has a stable of young pitchers who could be ready to take off in 2013. Several other youngsters who got a taste of college softball a year ago, may be ready to push their games to another level.
Gulas, who is in her 17th season at Ashland (569-269 with the Eagles, 772-393 overall in 25 years), realizes that players like Knerem, Kelley and Woody don't come along every day. It will take time to replace them. But the Eagles are not bereft of good players. This roster has a strong returning nucleus, one that should be able to compete for another postseason trip.
Coaches around the country believe that's a good possibility. The Eagles begin the 2013 season listed "Among Others Receiving Votes," in the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Top 25 poll.
Here's a preview of the Eagles as they prepare for their opening weekend, Feb. 24-25, at Bellarmine (AU will play Bellarmine and Lincoln Memorial).
There are few worries on the right side of the infield. Junior Cayla Seidler (Massillon, Ohio/Massillon Washington) returns for her third year as the starting second baseman. Senior Franki Gironda (Akron, Ohio/Hoban) is in her fourth season as the starting first baseman. Both players were named honorable mention All-GLIAC last season.
Seidler hit .345 (third on the club) last season. She was second on the team in on-base percentage (.448).
"She's that solid, complete player," Gulas said. "She makes things happen in both parts of the game."
Gironda hit .339, belted six homers and drove in 39 runs. Gironda was 10th in the GLIAC in RBI.
"Franki gave us a great year," said Gulas, harking back to last season. "We're looking at her being a player we can count on again this year."
The left side of the infield is where the Eagles have to do some re-modeling. Ashland played 59 games last year and Woody started every one at shortstop. Sophomore Jamie Weber (Orient, Ohio/Teays Valley) is penciled in as the starter. She appeared in 42 games a year ago, many as a pinch runner. Freshman Shelbie Prince (Groveport, Ohio/Groveport Madison) will get a look at shortstop and also in the outfield.
Senior Lauren Yelling (Lodi, Ohio/Cloverleaf) could get playing time at shortstop or second base. She brings experience to both spots.
Kelley was a tremendous defensive player at third base and was one of the most consistent offensive players in the conference. To fill that spot, the Eagles are going to turn to sophomore Jerrica Young (Loudonville, Ohio). Young made a major impression on the conference offensively last year, hitting .305 with team highs of 10 homers and 41 RBI. She was fourth in the GLIAC in homers and tied for eighth in RBI. Young was a catcher/designated player in 2012. She's also expected to see some action behind the plate in 2013.
"We're teaching her the position," said Gulas, when asked about Young's transition. "She's playing extremely well right now and has great instincts on the field."
Senior Tawna Garver (Mansfield, Ohio/Hillsdale) is behind the plate for the fourth consecutive season. Garver, a two-time second team All-GLIAC selection (2010, 2011) hit .281 a year ago with eight homers (second on the team) and 35 RBI. Garver has been a key part of the middle of the order throughout her career, but she's just as valuable for the way she handles the pitching staff. That will be of the utmost importance this season because this staff is more inexperienced than the ones that Eagles have had over the last four years.
Moore could be an option when Garver needs a break.
"She has some good, raw talent," noted Gulas. "She's learning the pitching staff and making the transition to the college game."
A year ago, Taylor Menhart (Twinsburg, Ohio) emerged as one of the GLIAC's top young players. She was the starting center fielder and gave the Eagles one of the best gloves in the conference. There was nothing wrong with her bat either – she hit .347 (second on the team) with a .572 slugging percentage. Menhart clubbed six homers and had 41 RBI. She tied for eighth in the GLIAC in RBI.
"She came out of the shoot as a freshman and was a major contributor," reminded Gulas. "We're definitely looking for her to learn from her experiences and continue to be a force to be reckoned with.
Menhart will be flanked by the same players as she was a year ago. Junior Carly West (Ashland, Ohio) is an exceptional defensive player. Take West's speed and combine that with Menhart's defensive prowess and very few balls make it through the gap on that side of the field. West has also made major strides offensively. She hit .258 a year ago.
"Last year, Carly started to make a lot of things happen at the plate," said Gulas. "She was more than just a slap hitter.
In right field, junior Kourtney Yarnall (Canton, Ohio/Perry) is back for her second year as the starter. Yarnall began her career as a catcher. She started 55 games last season and hit .245 with two homers and 20 RBI.
"Kourtney's stepped up her game," pointed out Gulas. "She's playing with a lot of confidence right now. She's learned an awful lot the last two years. I'm seeing a lot more confidence offensively and defensively."
Sophomores Lyndsey Flechler (Shreve, Ohio/Tri-way) and Alexis Lee (Medina, Ohio) are two other outfielders who saw action off the bench a year ago in pinch hitting and pinch running situations. The most experience player the Eagles have coming off the bench is senior Kaely Stucin (Dover, Ohio). She gives the Eagles a dependable pinch hitter, pinch runner and glove. However, she suffered an injury in the preseason and is working her way back to full health.
Knerem pitched 231.2 innings last season and that's not going to be easy to replace. This is a staff heavy on youth. The most experienced pitcher is sophomore Amber McDermott (Creston, Ohio/Norwayne). She was 12-6 with a 3.27 ERA last season.
"She did an outstanding job for us last year," said Gulas. "We wouldn't have had the success we had last year without her contributions in the circle."
Injuries limited sophomore McKenna Galloway (Brunswick, Ohio) to 13 games, seven starts and 42 innings a year ago. Another sophomore, Sarah Alley (Milford, Ohio), lost the entire season to a foot injury. Those two were highly regarded a year ago and Gulas believes if they are healthy, they can be major contributors this season.
Brittany Flanigan (Louisville, Ohio) and Zoe Myers (Worthington, Ohio/Thomas Worthington) are two freshmen who could also figure into the pitching mix. The season will begin with the Eagles sorting out roles on the staff. That shouldn't be considered a negative. Gulas has never feared putting young players into the lineup and seeing how they respond.
"I want to see them," said Gulas. "They are going to get opportunities and players need to take advantage of those opportunities."