Preview: Softball hopes versatility will guide them to winning season

After placing ninth in the Horizon League’s 2017 preseason poll, the Northern Kentucky University softball team is motivated to advance their record this year and improve from last year’s 13-40 record in their second stint of Horizon League play.

After doubling the team’s win record in her first year alone, head coach Kathryn Gleason is preparing her team to take the Horizon League head-on, striving to improve from last year’s finish with a dozen returning players, 11 new members, as well as a junior transfer.

“We always say it’s not where you start, it’s where you finish,” Gleason said. “We have 12 new people and 12 returners, so only we know what we have right now, and we’re confident with our preparation, and excited to get the preseason going because I think the preseason schedule will prepare us for the conference schedule.”

With just days to go before preseason play begins in Athens, Georgia, the Norse are putting in the extra effort and preparing to take on the Georgia Classic pre-season tournament where they will square off against Dayton, Louisiana-Monroe, and SEC powerhouse Georgia, who will be one of NKU’s toughest opponents of this  season.

The Norse will begin the season with four road tournaments. Senior catcher Dani Devlin says these tournaments are a crucial test for the team and their ability to learn from last season.

“[Preseason tournaments] prepares a lot for conference, and it’s also nice that we’re going to play huge teams, including Georgia,” Devlin said. “That will be a test to see where we’re at now and what we need to work on for conference.”

Devlin, who led the team in RBIs last season with a batting average of .272 and a slugging percentage of .443, is already seeing improvement from her team as she heads into her final season with the Norse.

“Last season we lacked a little bit of versatility, this season we have a lot of it,” Devlin said. “We have a ton of quick outfielders, and we have a lot of people we can interchange in different positions. We can bunt, we can slap this year, and have a lot of speed which is awesome to mix up with the power that we had from last year.”

Among the returning players is Horizon League All-Freshman team member and outfielder, Zahrya McFarland, who led the team last year in stolen bases, runs, doubles, and had a team best batting average of .290.

“One of our top goals for our team this season would be to make it into the conference tournament this year,” McFarland said. “We were a little shy of making it last year, but I definitely think we can do that because we have come a long way from last year.”

Senior pitcher Charlie Nolen, one of five pitchers for the Norse, is hoping to improve her ERA of 4.37 from last season.

“I have a personal goal of keeping my ERA under 3.0 and to set good examples for the younger leaders that are coming up, as well as pushing myself as hard as I can in every game,” Nolen said. “This year’s been a big improvement and I think that we need to keep that mentality up, try our best, and play Norse softball.”

The Norse currently have 54 games scheduled including 12 home games at Frank Ignatius Grein Field. Of the 12 dates at home, six of them are double-headers

After playing in four preseason tournaments, the Norse will open up regular season play with a double-header in Oxford, Ohio where they will take on Miami University on March 22.  

The first home game for the Norse will be against Horizon League rival, Valparaiso. The two teams will square off on March 24 and again the following day for a double-header.

The Norse will also host two other Kentucky teams at home this season, Eastern Kentucky University as well as Kentucky, who was ranked second in the SEC coaches’ preseason poll, behind Florida.

Other top teams the Norse will go up against this season include Wright State as well as top Horizon League contender, University of Illinois-Chicago, (UIC), who returns their pitching ace from last season.