By: Jonathan Kostoff – Sports Writer
Freshly cut grass, newly laced Nike and Mizuno cleats and a newly-lined diamond means University of Dayton softball is ready to get the 2015 season started at the UD Softball Stadium, but first, they have to travel to a warmer climate to participate in some early season showcases and classics.
The Flyers’ softball season begins Friday, in the Kennesaw State Kickoff Classic with four games in three days, including one game against NCAA Tournament participant, the University of Tennessee. The Flyers will also partake in three more classics during the beginning portion of their nonconference schedule. Coach Cara LaPlaca, now in her eighth season heading the program, thinks these tournaments are helpful in a multitude of ways.
“We participate in early season classics first and foremost driven by the weather here in Dayton,” LaPlaca said.
“We tried to stay in an eight-hour radius with three out of the four weekend classics other than the trip to Clearwater, Florida, which is over spring break. These long road trips give us a chance to get off campus, get the players’ minds off of their school work and solely focus in on softball.”
With all the time spent on the road, it is sure to bring a team, which graduated five players mainly in the infield, together rather quickly.
“They definitely build chemistry,” LaPlaca added.
In addition to team bonding, these classics and nonconference games are scheduled to provide experience against tougher opponents, three of whom were NCAA Tournament qualifiers in 2014 (University of Tennessee, Lipscomb University and Ohio University), and to accustom the team to a wide variety of opposing strategies.
Teams that have different types of players like those with “speed, power and a strong defensive mindset” as LaPlaca explained are good tests for the team when conference play comes around.
“You have to prepare for so many different styles in such a short amount of time when playing four or five games in a weekend,” she said.
UD will also travel to the 49er Invitational in Charlotte, North Carolina, the Purple and Gold Challenge in Nashville, Tennessee and the aforementioned trip to Clearwater to play in the University of South Florida Under Armour Showcase.
This group returns two now-seniors who were both honored for their performances by the Atlantic 10 Conference in 2014. Tiffany Ricks, who was named first team All Atlantic 10 Conference as well as second team All-Region last season, is the top returning hitter from the 2014 team. Ricks, a right-handed hitting first baseman, was in the top five in the A-10 in hits, total bases, runs batted in (RBIs), home runs, runs scored, batting average and stolen bases last season. She is the do it all player LaPlaca is looking for even more production from this year.
The second key leader of the Flyers is at the heart of a pitching staff that returns all four pitchers from last year. LaPlaca describes this staff as “the experience and strength of the team especially when it comes down to the latter half of the season.” Kayla English, who had 17 wins in 2014 and 36 for her career, was named second team All Atlantic 10 Conference after last year’s stellar campaign. English’s numbers speak for themselves. She currently ranks first in UD history in strikeouts with 443, third in wins with 36 and fourth in innings pitched with 459.2. English also threw the coveted no-hitter last season in a game against Wright State University.
Coach LaPlaca has also bolstered her staff this offseason, adding two new assistant coaches, who bring, as LaPlaca said, “a fresh look to the program.” Sarah Willis, the team’s new pitching instructor and assistant coach, joins UD after three seasons as the assistant coach at Southeast Missouri State University. Tiffany Prager, the new hitting instructor, was named to a brand new position as the second assistant for the upcoming season. Prager served as a graduate assistant last season at her alma mater Illinois State University.
The team has also benefited this offseason with the renovations to the Olsen Athletics Performance Center. The newly remodeled 10,000 square foot workout facility houses equipment for all 17 of the university’s sports teams.
There are some changes to the schedule for the Atlantic 10 this season as the conference added Davidson College. Also, teams will play three game series, as baseball is structured, instead of two game sets. Last season, UD finished 9-9 in the conference including two wins over conference champion, Fordham.
Even though you can’t catch your Flyers at home until March 13, they will play 21 games before that point. and it all starts Friday.