When Ashland University's softball team begins the 2018 season at the Dome Invitational on Feb. 23-24, it will do so with first-year head coach Emlyn Knerem at the helm.
Not only will those be Knerem's first official games as a college softball head coach, it also will be the first time since May 11, 1996, that someone other than Sheilah Gulas will lead the Eagles onto the field.
"It's been a whirlwind," said Knerem, an All-American and record-setting pitcher as an Eagle from 2009-12. "We're coming in and had to learn 23 new kids. Watching from afar, you get to know a little bit about the girls, but I didn't get to see them play a whole lot over the last couple of years. We were making a lot of our own opinions on them, which was nice. We really could evaluate them a lot."
In 2017, Ashland went 30-23 overall, and came within two wins of a Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament title and spot in the NCAA Division II postseason. The makeup of the team then is very much as it is now – underclassmen-laden.
The difference in 2018 is the experience level of the underclassmen.
"I think that's going to help us," Knerem said. "They are hungry for that success. They know what it's like to be in the conference finals now two years in a row. They want that next step."
Knerem said the goal is to make it to the GLIAC Tournament once again, and the team said the major goal is to win it. That would lead to the next step – a return to the NCAA playoffs for the first time since 2015.
One way to make that possibility a reality would be improvement in doubleheaders. In 2017, the Eagles split 11 twinbills.
"That's been a lot of conversation with our returners," Knerem said. "We've talked quite a bit about attacking both games, and not settling just for one."
In the pitcher's circle, Ashland has all but one inning returning from a season ago in senior Paige McMenemy (16-10, four saves, 2.63 earned-run average), junior Hannah Stroe (11-10, three saves, 2.59 ERA) and junior Abbie Sgro (3-3, two saves, 3.85 ERA). The newbie in the group is freshman Laney Jones.
"We're definitely going to be using all four," said Knerem. "I think we're going to be pitching by committee all season. I'll be interested to see in these first two weeks, who rises to the occasion. I'm excited."
Another 2017 starter returning to her position is junior Kylie Asmus (.317, eight doubles, 16 RBIs, seven stolen bases), although injuries may allow for more time for junior Katie Manahan (.233, four RBIs) and freshman Abigail Butler. Junior Paige Summers (.280, 12 doubles, 24 RBIs), who is slated for third base, could play first, as well.
Second base will be manned by sophomore Camille Pollutro (12 runs scored in 35 games), freshmen Alli Hylton and Jaylin Narvaez, and perhaps Summers. At shortstop, sophomore Bree Gill (24 games) is the frontrunner, but with Butler and freshman Emma Lawson available, too.
Third base will be primarily handled by both Summers and sophomore Dayna Denner, the reigning GLIAC Freshman of the Year who hit .372 with 33 runs scored, 10 doubles, three triples, four home runs, 19 RBIs and 16 stolen bases a spring ago.
Denner also could see time in the outfield.
"We could have a couple different combinations here in the beginning of the season, based on who's healthy," Knerem said. "We've talked about her (Denner) as a leadoff hitter, but we've also talked about moving her down to the 3- or 4-hole, because she has that power. We'd love to get people on base for her."
The outfield has four juniors – Katie Mitchell, who missed all of 2017 due to injury; Erika Farst, a transfer from Findlay; Halle Dorko (.212, seven RBIs) and Laura Girgash (13 games) – in addition to Denner, sophomore transfer Timber Stoops (Notre Dame College) and freshman Amanda Wire.
Junior outfielder Kayla Troyer (.254, 10 runs scored, six RBIs, four stolen bases), who came on at the end of last season, will be out for the entire season due to injury.
"We have so many kids, especially in this freshman class, who are so versatile," Knerem said. "It may surprise some people. We may not be so predictable."
Knerem is assisted by Maddy Grimm and Bob Lance.
"Bob, he's that voice like, 'Hey, well what about this situation? Can't forget about this.' That's nice, because, for me, I'm trying to balance focusing on different things," said Knerem. "Maddy is so enthusiastic and excited about this season. The girls relate to her well.
"We're ready for the season."
Ashland will play four games at the Dome Invitational in Rosemont, Ill., before embarking on its annual Florida spring trip, March 4-9. The Eagles are scheduled to open home play at Brookside Park on March 24 in a non-conference doubleheader vs. Walsh.