Ashland University softball head coach Sheilah Gulas is entering her last season at the helm with a team that she claims is much different than a lot of the teams she coached in her first 20 seasons as an Eagle.
"With the opportunities we have for playing time, we're not 100-percent set on a lineup," said Gulas, who announced on Feb. 3 that she will retire following the 2017 season. "There are so many new players on the team that we don't know where we're headed."
Freshman Dayna Denner (outfielder/infielder), junior transfer from Akron Paige McMenemy (pitcher), sophomore transfer from Bowling Green Paige Summers (third base) and sophomore transfer from Ohio Northern Kylie Asmus (first base) are the new players Gulas mentioned.
She also named senior catcher Audrey Manahan, sophomore first baseman Katie Manahan and sophomore catcher/outfielder Halle Dorko as returning players who can join the lineup and make an impact this year.
Gulas said the aforementioned players will have a chance to shine when the team opens up its season with five games at the Lewis Dome Invitational from Friday (Feb. 24) to Sunday (Feb. 26) in Chicago, Ill.
"You've got that group of players that you don't really know," she said. "And you've got that group of returning players with experience."
All four of those seniors played in at least 43 games in 2016. Van Horn led Ashland with eight home runs, Farrah led the team with 64 hits and 19 walks, Raguz was AU's only player to record at least two doubles, two triples and two home runs, and Freshour is the only returning player that has participated in all 102 games over the past two seasons.
"It's exciting for me to look at our batting order and see that we've got that core group of seniors that have really contributed with RBIs and getting on base," Gulas said.
"You have to look at that group and say, 'How many strong innings will you give us,'" Gulas said. "We need pitchers who are able to come on in relief and continue where we left off or shut a team down."
Ashland will head straight from their first weekend of play in Chicago down to Clermont, Fla., to play in 12 Dot Richardson Spring Games contests. During those first three weeks of the season, the Eagles will face several teams from within the Midwest Region.
"With the number of games we have over the next three weeks," Gulas said, "you just don't know what you're going to have to deal with. Having a pitching committee is positive for the first part of our season because none of the games are doubleheaders. No team that we're facing will see one of our pitchers twice."
Last season, Ashland finished fifth in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference regular-season standings with a 15-10-1 record. The Eagles eventually made it to the GLIAC Tournament championship game and lost, ending their season with a 29-23-1 overall record.
Ashland has been picked to finish third in the 2017 GLIAC Preseason Coaches' Poll that was released on Feb. 7.
"Ultimately," Gulas said, "you want to win the GLIAC. But the GLIAC is going to be stronger than it was last year, so I'd be excited finishing in the top three. There's probably going to be eight teams fighting for those top three sports, so it's all about where we fall within that mix."
Gulas added that she's excited to coach a team that will feature a lot of players that have never competed in the conference.
"Sometimes not knowing is the best thing for a team," she said. "Some of our best years, we had players that didn't know what things are supposed to be like. They just go out there and play. They're just trying to have the best game they can and get the win. Those are fun groups to coach, and this team has a lot of that in them."