Season Preview: Softball ranked No. 15

Season Preview: Softball ranked No. 15

TIFFIN -- After a remarkable 2015 campaign that saw Heidelberg softball soar to unprecedented heights, head coach Betsy Hada and the Student Princes will switch roles – from hunter to hunted – in 2016. Heidelberg surprised teams in the conference, region and nation -- rising from and unranked-and-inexperienced squad at the onset to No. 17 in the final National Fastpitch Coaches Association poll at season's end.

"We know there is a target on our back, that we will see everyone's best effort," said Hada, reigning OAC Coach of the Year. "But our mindset remains the same -- we will look to play aggressively and fundamentally sound."

Of last year's 16 letterwinners, 14 return to the squad in 2016. A group of more than a dozen freshmen are eager to contribute to the team's efforts to repeat as conference champions.

THE BATTERY: First team All-OAC and NFCA Third Team All-Region pitcher Paige Atterholt returns as the ace of the staff, having gone 19-5 with a 2.92 ERA in 2015. Behind Atterholt, returners Erin Chapman (4-0) and Abbie Finnell (2-1) provide experienced depth.

At catcher, Mikaela Mitsch (.457, 8 HR, 49 RBI) returns for her senior campaign after being named NFCA First Team All-Region in 2015. Through her offense, defense and leadership, Mitsch plays a role in all aspects of the game.

"Paige and Mikaela have developed such an incredible rapport during their time at Heidelberg," said Hada. "They lead by example."

AROUND THE INFIELD: On the dirt, Hada will rely on a veteran group of award winners. OAC batting champion first baseman Marissa Smego (.477, 43 RBI), shortstop Kayla Zachrich (.413, 41 RBI) and second baseman Renee Lovett (.434) were All-OAC honorees a season ago, with Smego and Zachrich pulling in All-Region honors as well. At third base, Kyleah Brey – the most outstanding player at the NCAA Regional Tournament in Cortland – is back.

"Having all four infielders back is a blessing," said Hada. "Even better, we have a very talented crop of underclassmen who will challenge for playing time all season."

IN THE OUTFIELD: Taylor Hicks thrived in her role as center fielder and leadoff hitter in 2015 – excelling offensively (.390, 50 runs) and defensively (10 assists). Throughout the season, she was flanked by a platoon comprised of Randi Kelsey, Haylee Patel and Christine Bowling – all of whom return in 2016.

"With Taylor anchoring the group, we feel really good about the outfielders," said Hada. "Our roster is full of versatile athletes, which gives us a great deal of flexibility."

Sophomore Abbey McKee (.388, 9 HR, 35 RBI) was an All-Region performer in 2015 and is set to begin her second year as the designated player.

NEW FACES: Hada is joined by two new faces in the dugout. Erin Porter was hired as a full-time assistant, having previously served as an assistant at Hillsdale College. Jessie Probst, the new graduate assistant, was a pitcher at Lock Haven University, a Division II school in Pennsylvania.

"We have a dynamic staff with complementary skills," said Hada. "We're able to provide our student-athletes the one-on-one instruction that will help them thrive.

PRESEASON POLL: After ending 2015 ranked No. 17 in the NFCA poll, the Student Princes are ranked No. 15 in the preseason poll.

SEASON SCHEDULE: The 2016 season will start with ten contests at The Spring Games in Clermont, Florida, March 13-19. The home slate and OAC play begin on March 25 with Wilmington. In all, Heidelberg is slated to play eight doubleheaders at home.

In its first season, Frann's Field hosted the OAC tournament and the NCAA Super Regional tournament. The Student Princes were 16-3 at home, with seven wins in their final at-bat.

OAC FORECAST: While the OAC does not release a preseason poll, Hada and her squad understand how difficult it is to navigate through the conference slate.

"Our conference, 1-to-10, is full of very dangerous teams," said Hada. "We have to show up every game, ready to play."

SPRING TRIP: The 10 opponents for Heidelberg went a collective 199-171-1 (.538) during the 2015 season. There are two teams from the WIAC and the HCAC, with a single opponent from the SUNYAC, NACC, CAC, MASCAC, MIAA and NCAC.

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