What lies ahead for Ashland University's softball team as the 2019 Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament is set for Friday-Sunday (May 3-5) at Sports Force Parks in Sandusky, Ohio, is this:
- A possible conference tourney title for the first time since 2002.
- A potential return to the NCAA Division II postseason for the first time since 2015.
The No. 3 seed in the GLIAC Tournament, the Eagles (33-21) will begin play on Friday at 12:30 p.m. vs. No. 6-seed Wayne State (32-21). The game has added significance since, in the final D-II Midwest Regional rankings, the Warriors are at No. 5 and the Eagles are at No. 6.
Ashland enters the conference tourney having won eight of its last 11 games, while Wayne State is 6-8 in its last 14 outings.
"They're excited. It's hard to believe the end of the season is already here," said Ashland head coach Emlyn Knerem. "Once they get through this week with finals and the school year, they'll be ready to go."
Ashland has played 54 games so far in 2019, its most in seven years, and of those, 42 have been away from Brookside Park (26-16 record). Attempting to win a conference tournament title on a neutral field with a veteran-laden team won't phase the Eagles.
"Being on schedule has helped a lot. It's a very typical schedule for them," Knerem said. "We're not overly tired, we're not overly hurt. We're not battling injuries."
Offensively, the Eagles hit .291 and average 4.5 runs per game. While the lineup is littered with seniors and juniors, Ashland's two sophomore starters, left fielder Emma Lawson and shortstop Abigail Butler, have come into their own. Lawson has started all season and is hitting .339 with 15 RBIs in the No. 1 spot, while Butler has moved into the lineup in the last two weeks and not only is hitting .308 in that time, but has gone 13 straight games without an error.
"We're just looking for everybody to go up there and have good at-bats," said Knerem. "Abby came in when Bree (junior Bree Gill) got hurt, and has done a phenomenal job out there. She's very strong defensively, has great hands.
"Emma has stepped up phenomenally this year. She finds ways to sneak the ball through the infield or put a sneaky bunt down and get on base and be a spark for us."
Junior designated player Dayna Denner's 46 RBIs put her in a tie for fourth on AU's single-season list. With 85 doubles, Ashland is five away from breaking the program record of 89 set in 2012.
Defensively, Ashland has picked up the pace of late, committing just 10 errors in the last 12 contests.
"The defense feels good right now," Knerem said. "We've played really, really well in the last couple weeks, and I think Abby has anchored the defense."
Pitchers Laney Jones (sophomore) and Hannah Stroe (senior) have been Ashland's workhorses all season. Jones is 15-10 with a save and a 2.30 earned-run average, while Stroe is 16-11, 2.84. Stroe, who is 5-1 in her last six decisions, has the fifth-most innings pitched (548 1/3) in the history of the Eagle program.
"They're both very strong," Knerem said. "They have qualities to them that set them apart from each other."
The 2019 GLIAC Tournament championship game will be Sunday at 10 a.m., with a second game, if necessary, scheduled to follow.
"We actually play better against the teams like Grand Valley, but every team is tough," said Knerem. "This is a tough conference, and anybody can beat anybody. The tournament is wide-open. It's a matter of who's playing their best."