Selected to finish third in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference West division by coaches in the conference, Slippery Rock softball coach Stacey Rice acknowledged the respect but ultimately wrote off the preseason buzz for what it is.
“We have so much to prove to ourselves and we haven’t reached our goals yet,” Rice laughed. “As much as it’s easy to get caught up in those things, it means absolutely nothing.”
Typically, preseason expectations and polls have virtually zero impact on the success of a sports team. What matters is the preparation put into the coming off a new season and Rice is happy to have had basically a year to reload from last season’s loss of six seniors.
“There’s always a transition period every year, you always lose seniors whether it’s two, three or six like we did. There was definitely an identity change, but the great thing is we have almost an entire year to figure that out,” Rice explained.
The Slippery Rock women’s softball team experienced the greatest success of Rice’s tenure at The Rock last season and just narrowly missed out on the PSAC Tournament. This season, Rice and her team look forward to their ultimate goal: winning the PSAC championship.
“Our vision was our expectation for what we want to do this season—it’s written on our board—it’s to win a championship,” sophomore pitcher Camie Shumaker said.
Despite losing some veteran senior leadership and production from players like Emily Nagle, Brooke Dawson and Lauren Hawley to graduation, junior PSAC-West Player of the Year Kailey Myers and senior All-PSAC infielder Megan Brown headline a strong senior class.
Myers and Brown, along with junior outfielder Alexa Guglielmino, sophomore infielder Becca Roesch and senior outfielder Caitlyn MacKelvey return as position player starters for this season.
“Kailey Myers, Megan Brown, top performers coming back. They’re picking up where those other six left off. We have another strong six, they just look different,” Rice said.
On the mound, The Rock returns two sub-3.00 ERA pitchers in Shumaker and senior Andria Copelli. Shumaker looks to improve upon a stellar freshman season as the ace of the Green and White’s rotation. Copelli returns for her senior season after posting a team-low 2.75 ERA last season.
Despite the experience and leadership of the returners for this season’s squad, the young roster is comprised of mainly freshmen and sophomores.
“We’re a very young team, there are only six upperclassmen but the talent is the same or even better,” Myers said.
To begin the season, The Rock will play the first 20 games on the road. Series in South Carolina, Virginia, and spring break in Florida will provide a valuable learning experience for the entire squad.
“It’s being able to use these weekends as an opportunity to work on some things we can’t inside, get game pace ready and really challenge our pitchers,” Rice commented. “They’re really only used to seeing our batters. There’s a lot to learn in these next couple weeks.”
Right off the bat, the Green and White will begin the season in South Carolina for the Myrtle Beach Softball Tournament this weekend. Over the span of three days, The Rock will face off with five teams from around the east coast.
Among those games, no. 4 Saint Anselm College will provide a measuring test for how much work still needs to be done to prepare for PSAC play in March.
“Meeting our goals for each individual tourney helps us build confidence and just start to get rolling,” Shumaker said.
While the tournament provides The Rock with their first taste of action this season, Rice expressed how it was not just her team having their first game but everyone in attendance.
“It’s really an opportunity for us to see how we match against some really good competition and see if we did the work we needed to do during the offseason,” said Rice.
With the official start to the softball season now just days away, a couple of players have received votes of confidence from the coach and some of their peers.
Rice mentioned that she assumes the players who have had breakout seasons will continue to produce at high levels and lesser-known players will take that leap to stardom.
“I just have this feeling that Alexa Gugliamino is going to have a breakout year. She had a great sophomore year but that sophomore to junior year, we see time and time again that jump. She’s one that’s there at that jump.”
The trio of Shumaker, Myers and Brown pointed to sophomore catcher Leah Vith as someone who could make an impact now that she has the starting catcher position solidified.
“Leah being our main catcher and being able to hit all the time is going to do a lot for her and it’s going to be a good year,” Shumaker said.
With the first home game not coming until March 25 against Lock Haven University and the PSAC-West play beginning soon thereafter, The Rock has a month and a half of softball to be played in warm weather against teams that will only be seen once this season. Shumaker said that working to grow as a team and not just individuals will be the biggest goal leading up to conference play.
The first test of adversity hit the team last weekend at the Myrtle Beach Softball Tournament when a four game skid followed a debut victory over South New Hampshire University.
Close losses to Georgian Court University, no. 4 Saint Anselm College and Merrimack College saw strong pitching from Shumaker and Copelli but an offensive drought from Rock batters.
The weekend culminated in a 14-1 routing at the hands of the University of New Haven, in which the Chargers used an 11-run second inning to defeat The Rock.
While a 1-4 start to the young season does not scream potential, The Rock will have a few weeks of unexpected training to iron out any early season struggles before the next tournament.
With the arrival of Winter Storm Petra bringing inclement weather and unsafe road conditions in Northern Virginia, the Virginia State University Tournament has been cancelled.
The Green and White will be back in action at the NTC Tournament in Clermont, Fl. over the week of spring break. 12 games over the course of six days against competition from around the U.S. and two PSAC-East schools.
Preseason expectations and early season adversity aside, Rice is just happy to finally get back on the softball field.
“You always want to be better than you were the previous year, so the expectation is to be better. But without playing any games or having things to go off of, it’s hard to make an assessment. We’ve been inside…our game is played outside,” Rice said.