Sophomore infielder Madeline Simmonds (19) makes a throw on an attempted double play during an exhibition game against Cedarville University, Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, at UD Softball Stadium. (Ethan Klosterman/Photo Editor)
By: Chris Bendel – Asst. Sports Editor
The University of Dayton softball team will open the 2014 season in Santa Barbara, Calif., Friday, Feb. 7, against No. 11 Texas A&M University and the University of California, Santa Barbara as part of the Guacho Classic.
The Flyers return six starting position players and the majority of their pitching staff from a team that went 22-24 overall and 12-9 in the Atlantic 10 Conference last season, placing sixth in the conference.
The team’s 12 conference wins were the most in program history.
Players from outside of Ohio comprise 68 percent of the Flyers’ roster this season, which includes California native and senior pitcher Alysha Isaacson, who said she is thrilled to return to the warm weather and her family for the opening weekend of the college softball season.
“I’m excited for the whole team to experience California, because a lot of the girls haven’t experienced it before,” Isaacson said.
Dayton will begin its season the first weekend allowed by the NCAA rules.
Head coach Cara LaPlaca said in California, the team hopes, “to just get out and have some consistency and get some good, quality at-bats in. Get our team some experience and continue to work out the kinks.”
According to the A-10 preseason coaches’ poll, the Flyers are pegged to finish sixth again in the conference this year.
While Isaacson contends the team focuses its attention on what it can control – which includes play within the diamond – the rankings could help give them motivation as they navigate their competitive conference schedule.
“It’s going to make us strive to do better than what they [the coaches] think and show them who we really are,” Isaacson said.
In the poll, coaches predicted defending champion Fordham University to win the A-10 title for a second straight season.
While LaPlaca understands the logic behind the Flyers sixth-place selection, she said the ranking can be seen as a step to the Flyers potential this season.
“Given our past history, I’m not surprised,” she said. “We do have a veteran group and veteran leadership. We’re actually poised to potentially surprise some people in the conference.”
Senior shortstop Jordan Jennings echoes her coach’s sentiments, saying the team has its sights set on improving from last year’s program best in wins.
“Our number one goal is to not only go the conference tournament, but to win the conference tournament,” Jennings said.
“I know we’re capable of winning it this year.”
Fans watching 2014 Flyers softball can look forward to a more aggressive style of play than the team used last year.
During the offseason, Jennings said the coaching staff emphasized taking chances on the base paths, at the plate and in the field. The team recently had a practice dedicated in large part to smart base running tactics.
“We’re not afraid to take chances and we’re ready to just go all out all the time. There’s no holding back,” Jennings said.
LaPlaca said she hopes the changes will put pressure on opposing defenses and help the team manufacture runs when UD’s bats aren’t connecting.
While the Flyers will look to improve the aggressiveness of their game, all changes are predicated and motivated by another point of emphasis by LaPlaca and the coaching staff in the offseason.
The team has focused on the cerebral aspect of the game. Dayton hopes to make smart, aggressive plays.
“We’ve really focused on our mental approach. … Instead of making everything so physical, I know that we’ve really pushed our mental ability,” Jennings said.
Jennings said the team is currently reading a softball leadership book that goes through game situations and attempts to create a winning mental approach. The Flyers hope the mental edge will play out on the diamond.
“Softball has a lot of down time and the ability to stay focused in the game is huge,” Isaacson said. “We really take pride in how much focus we can have.”
The opening weekend in California also will welcome a new starting lineup. As of right now, LaPlaca said everything is unknown, but she does anticipate a senior-laden batting order.
Position battles, a term Jennings said she does not prefer, have characterized the amount of talent LaPlaca has been able to bring in over the past couple of years.
Jennings said her freshman year, that may have not been the case.
“You kind of knew who was going to start,” Jennings said. “Now this year, you have absolutely no idea. It’s so encouraging to know that anyone, at any time, can step on the field and do their job.”
One would think the competition between seniors and freshmen, returning starters and bench players could breed an unhealthy rivalry between teammates.
Don’t mention the possibility to Jennings.
“We’re helping each other. … It’s never how can I be better than her today, but how can I help her be better today,” Jennings said. “We’re not scared of not starting. We want coach to put the best nine out there on the field.”
Even if it means one of five freshmen on the roster earn a starting spot?
“We don’t focus on the year or grade that anyone is. If you can play, you have our respect,” Isaacson said.